Expertise

The UK's Daily Mail reporting is shoddy at best and their content can be malicious. They make basic factual errors and aren't keen to correct mistakes. That is probably a given and I'm pretty used to the baseline level of distaste I have towards them. However, today I got much more annoyed that usual when they heavily implyed that two astronomers were invited onto the BBC's Newsnight (a 10.30pm news programme) to talk about the recent BICEP2 cosmology results because of their gender and/or nationality.

The Daily Mail opinion piece specifically mentions the genders of Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Dr Hiranya Peiris. It contrasts them to the genders and nationalities that the writer assumed for the BICEP2 team. Why do this? What relevance do the gender and nationality (or race) have to do with their ability to talk on the subject? The Daily Mail piece doesn't mention the gender or nationalities of the three other astronomers that were on the Newsnight BICEP2 item. The expertise or presence of those astronomers wasn't questioned based on their genders or nationalities. In fact, they weren't mentioned in the Daily Mail piece at all. By omitting to mention the three male contributors, it left readers with the impression that men were somehow discriminated against. This fits the distorted reality of the Daily Mail (and a false but popular narrative that men are being oppressed) who clearly want to make a political point against the Newsnight Editor. The implication that the women were only there because they were women is demonstrably false (see below). The implication that only women were on this piece, are also false.

Let's get some things straight. It is OK to ask if people are qualified to talk about a complex topic. It is not OK to only challenge the scientific qualifications of people of one gender, of one race, or any other irrelevant physical characteristic. That is discrimination however you dress it up.

For the record, Dr Aderin-Pocock is an astronomer and space technology engineer who has worked on Gemini/JWST and co-presents the BBC's Sky At Night. Dr Peiris is a cosmologist who has worked on the two big cosmology space missions of this millennium; WMAP and Planck. She has worked on Herschel-SPIRE. She is a provisional member of the Dark Energy Survey. She is PI on large research grants. She has had a Hubble Postdoctoral Fellowship, an STFC Advanced Fellowship, and won a bunch of prizes. If that doesn't make her qualified to comment about her own area of expertise on a general news program, what does exactly? Both are more than qualified to be on Newsnight talking about astronomy/cosmology.

There is an excellent open letter from the Vice-Provost for Research at UCL to the Editor of the Daily Mail, Paul Dacre which I saw via a rightly outraged Chris Lintott. Kudos to UCL for defending their research staff against discriminatory pot shots from newspaper commentators.

I'd write to the Press Complaint's Commission but it looks as though the Editor of the Daily Mail is the Chair of the PCC Code Committee so the chances of him enforcing something against himself seem a little slim.

Update 2014/03/21: How wrong could one short article be? As well as the things I mention above, I should have also taken issue with the Daily Mail claiming that the BICEP2 team were "(white, male) American". Here is a picture of some of the BICEP2 team. They are clearly not all men and white. I even know two of the team based at Cardiff University (in Wales). Finally, the Daily Mail actually quoted Dr Peiris in an article a few days before but "Ephraim Hardcastle" (alter ego of Peter MacKay) didn't use that to claim bias at the Daily Mail. So the evidence points to lies and racist statements for political point scoring.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 20th Mar 2014 (16:40 GMT) | Add a comment | Permalink

Multi-wavelength Universe Activity

When you look up at objects in the night sky you only see part of the picture; you see visible light. In reality, the universe is emitting light at a huge range of wavelengths from radio waves to gamma rays and everything in between. It is important for astronomers to compare the light of each type from an object such as a star or a galaxy as that tells us huge amounts about their composition and conditions.

To help students explore the multi-wavelength nature of astronomical objects, the UK Herschel website has a multi-wavelength universe activity with a bunch of educational resources for teachers. The activity was originally written in Flash and Chris North recently asked me to convert it to Javascript/HTML to make it easier to update and so that it would work on devices that don't support Flash (e.g. iPads/iPhones). In refreshing it I also made it responsive (it should reformat itself for narrow devices such as smart phones) and built in support for different languages (you'll be able to use it in Welsh at some point soon).

We made the whole thing open source and, if you've checked out a copy from Github, you can even run in a browser locally without needing an internet connection.

Let us know what you think. Please report bugs via Github or tell me on Twitter.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 12th Mar 2014 (13:22 GMT) | Add a comment | Permalink

APOD Linked Data

This is a very esoteric post about Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) and data formats so if neither of those interest you feel free to look at a pretty picture of a nebula instead.

Since 2007 I've been running the @apod Twitter account. Since the US government shutdown of October 2013 I've been providing an APOD search engine too. As a result I have put some effort into parsing the content of every APOD since 1995 and have them in a big file split into fields such as date, title, author, description, URL and astronomical objects (coordinates/type). I realised that this big file of data could be useful to other people so was trying to think of a good way to share it.

A few weeks ago I stumbled across JSON-LD which stores text in Javascript object notation but with a few twiddles to describe what the data actually are and help link data from different sources. I'm familiar with JSON and the approach of the JSON-LD folks seemed easier to grasp and work with than the alternatives from the RDF/SPARQL/Linked Data world.

After a bit of playing I had converted my file into a first attempt at JSON-LD. I uploaded it to GitHub and mentioned I'd done so on Twitter. A little while later I was pleasantly surprised to have a tweet (out-of-the-blue) from Markus Lanthaler - one of the authors of JSON-LD - suggesting some improvements to what I'd done. He sent me a pull request and I updated things accordingly. It was brilliant to receive helpful input like that. Huge thanks to Markus for being so proactive and helpful.

If you play with the APOD JSON-LD file let me know what you think or if you have suggestions for improvements.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 14th Feb 2014 (17:04 GMT) | Add a comment | Permalink

Stellar Spectra

I've mentioned previously that the British Library has put over a million images into the public domain. That's a lot of images and there are some real gems amongst them. Today, via @benosteen I saw this image of stellar spectra from 1866.

Stellar spectra
Spectres Sideraux: 1) Soleil [Sun]; 2) α Orion [Betelgeuse]; 3) Aldebaran; 4) Sirius; 5) Rigel; 6) Pollux; 7) Nebuleuse d'Orion [Orion Nebula, M42]. Image taken from page 89 of 'L'Espace céleste et la nature tropicale, description physique de l'univers ... préface de M. Babinet, dessins de Yan' Dargent' CREDIT: The British Library

Although the Sun's light looks mostly white, Newton had shown that it was actually composed of all the colours of the rainbow - the spectrum. With better prisms you can see that it isn't composed of every colour; some specific colours are 'missing' from the solar spectrum and show up as narrow, dark bands. The exact wavelengths of these dark bands are due to the energy levels of specific elements in the atmosphere of the Sun and so act as a chemical fingerprint telling us what the Sun is made of.

Spectra like those shown above were first observed in 1802 by William Wollaston and the dark bands were later named "Fraunhofer lines" after German physicist Joseph von Fraunhofer. By the time this image was published (1866) they'd been known about for around half a century but had not given up all their secrets just yet. Two years later, more precise spectra of the Sun's chromosphere by Pierre Janssen and Norman Lockyer would show a yellow line with a wavelength of 587.49 nm (just next to the sodium 'D' lines) that could not be explained by any of the chemical elements known at the time. Those observations led to the discovery of the element Helium which was later named after Helios - the god of the Sun - due to the method of its discovery.

Like the Sun, other stars show dark lines in their spectra too. This stellar spectroscopy tells you a wealth of information. Not only can you tell which chemicals are present, but also their relative amounts, the star's magnetic fields and the star's history. These days we observe spectra across most of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to X-rays and for a whole variety of objects. As a result we've discovered water, complex hydrocarbons, buckyballs, and even alcohol in space.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 30th Jan 2014 (14:26 GMT) | Add a comment | Permalink

The Old Astronomer

This morning I received a letter from my aunt in Canada. In it she included an extract from a poem by Sarah Williams (1841-1868) set to music composed by Haydn (1732-1809). The poem was "The Old Astronomer" - which I hadn't seen before - and it contains some lovely lines. I've included the full poem here.

Reach me down my Tycho Brahe, -- I would know him when we meet,
When I share my later science, sitting humbly at his feet;
He may know the law of all things, yet be ignorant of how
We are working to completion, working on from then till now.

Pray, remember, that I leave you all my theory complete,
Lacking only certain data, for your adding as is meet;
And remember, men will scorn it, 'tis original and true,
And the obloquy of newness may fall bitterly on you.

But, my pupil, as my pupil you have learnt the worth of scorn;
You have laughed with me at pity, we have joyed to be forlorn;
What, for us, are all distractions of men's fellowship and smiles?
What, for us, the goddess Pleasure, with her meretricious wiles?

You may tell that German college that their honour comes too late.
But they must not waste repentance on the grizzly savant's fate;
Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light;
I have loved the stars too truly to be fearful of the night.

What, my boy, you are not weeping? You should save your eyes for sight;
You will need them, mine observer, yet for many another night.
I leave none but you, my pupil, unto whom my plans are known.
You "have none but me," you murmur, and I "leave you quite alone"?

Well then, kiss me, -- since my mother left her blessing on my brow,
There has been a something wanting in my nature until now;
I can dimly comprehend it, -- that I might have been more kind,
Might have cherished you more wisely, as the one I leave behind.

I "have never failed in kindness"? No, we lived too high for strife, --
Calmest coldness was the error which has crept into our life;
But your spirit is untainted, I can dedicate you still
To the service of our science: you will further it? you will!

There are certain calculations I should like to make with you,
To be sure that your deductions will be logical and true;
And remember, "Patience, Patience," is the watchword of a sage,
Not to-day nor yet to-morrow can complete a perfect age.

I have sworn, like Tycho Brahe, that a greater man may reap;
But if none should do my reaping, 'twill disturb me in my sleep.
So be careful and be faithful, though, like me, you leave no name;
See, my boy, that nothing turn you to the mere pursuit of fame.

I must say Good-bye, my pupil, for I cannot longer speak;
Draw the curtain back for Venus, ere my vision grows too weak:
It is strange the pearly planet should look red as fiery Mars, --
God will mercifully guide me on my way amongst the stars.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 08th Jan 2014 (12:53 GMT) | Add a comment | Permalink