Human spaceflight

How many people have been to space? That all depends on your definition of space. The Earth's atmosphere doesn't have a fixed boundary. It just gets thinner and thinner. The closest to an international standard we have is an altitude of 100 km. This suspiciously round number is close to the Karman Line - a place where the speed needed for a craft to be controllable by aerodynamic forces equals the orbital speed. It is a cut-off between aeronautics and astronautics.

As is often the case, the United States chooses a different definition to the rest of the world. The US prefers to use 50 miles (~80km). The practical difference from using the lower altitude is that six US Air Force pilots are then included as astronauts. I stick to 100km as it has some kind of physics-based justification.

If we use 100 km, there have been 545 astronauts so far but expect that to increase in December 2015 when the next Soyuz goes up to the ISS. These comprise of 331 from the US (NASA), 120 Russians (Soviet/Roscosmos), 10 Chinese (CNSA), 9 space tourists, and 75 with other nationalities.

For my recent book, I collated data on all 545 astronauts and made visualisations of various aspects. I've created a human spaceflight timeline which lets you see when every mission was as well as key moments.

There are a few things that become obvious when it is presented like this. The first is how we've increased the duration of spaceflights over the years. You can see how short the Shuttle missions were (roughly 8-12 days long) compared to those on space stations such as Mir or the ISS. It is also easy to see the pauses in the human spaceflight programmes of the Soviets and the Americans following the disasters of Soyuz 11, Challenger, and Columbia.

I've also created a graph of astronaut data, a map of astronaut birthplaces, a page which shows who is in space and who was in space (just change the date in the URL), and a breakdown of astronaut stats and records.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 26th Oct 2015 (20:58 GMT) | Permalink

The infographic book of space

As of last Thursday I am a published author (ignoring my thesis). I created a book of infographics relating to space with Chris North from Cardiff University. I say created, rather than wrote, as much of the effort went into creating visualisations of data and concepts.

Book cover
Cosmos: The infographic book of space

The contents start with human & robotic exploration before stepping out to the solar system, the stars, galaxies, and the universe as a whole. We have tried to include a range of concepts some of which are really easy to grasp and some which require a bit more thought. Hopefully a few challenge preconceptions (e.g. how many planets are there? and is the Sun at the centre of the Solar System?) whilst others present data in new ways (every interplanetary mission).

Interplanetary missions to bodies other than the Moon

Giant stars
A selection of large stars shown in comparison to the Sun.

We had a relatively short period of time to create the book so there was a lot of work to do. Initially we weren't sure if we'd be able to do it but managed to come up with around 60 ideas within a couple of days. The aim was 100 different graphics.

The process

As I'm based in Leeds and Chris is in Cardiff, we needed ways to work together efficiently. We used a private Github repository to build up our list of ideas and start assembling the text and data. We discussed the ideas and progress via the issues on Github and via Skype calls. But making a book needed more than just us. We had help from a graphic designer - Mark McCormick - based in Newcastle.

During most of the design process I spent a day a week in Newcastle with Mark. Being at the same computer screen made the process much easier. Many of the graphics were data driven and we quickly realised that it was going to be incredibly tedious and error prone for Mark to position hundreds of elements on the page. Chris and I created lots of Javascript and Python code to do the boring job of precisely positioning data and output the results as vector graphics for Mark to do his magic with. Working next to Mark really helped the process. In fact, a few of the spreads in the book originated from discussions we had as we were chatting over tea.

Mark, and the other designers at his company, suggested the light colour palette for the book. They said they wanted it to stand out from all the other space-related books which tend to have black covers. I liked this idea and I think the result looks really great.

Interactive versions

Having developed so many things for the web over the past few years, it was challenging, at times, to fit the constraints of the printed page. There is a limited amount of space and a limited number of labels that can been shown. We knew a few would work very well as interactive versions. A handy by-product of using Javascript to create first drafts was that it became relatively straightforward to create interactive web versions.

We created a public repository on Github to host the web versions as well as the data sets we collated to make the book. We also decided to use the issues system to solicit corrections - there are bound to be mistakes in a book containing this much information. The website also has a few bonus infographics that aren't in the book.

A timeline of human spaceflight missions. This is something that is just far too long to fit on the page of a book.

In the end I hope we've made a well-designed coffee table book that would make a good Christmas present. I also hope we've made some interesting and useful web resources. Enjoy.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 25th Oct 2015 (01:31 BST) | Permalink

Humanity vs mankind

Note (2015-09-23 09:45 UTC): updated to include clarification that "human" and "man" don't share a root.

It has been a very long time since my last blog post but I've been making a book, cycling across Europe, and had little to say in long-form.

This post is about language - particularly language commonly used in astronomy/space contexts. On Monday, I read a very useful article about inclusive language by Dr Alice Gorman (@drspacejunk). It specifically talks about phrases such as "manned spaceflight", "mankind", "manmade", and "unmanned" and alternatives such as "human spaceflight", "humanity", "artificial", "robotic".

Not everyone understands why some word choices can exclude people who aren't male. It may seem illogical that "mankind" is seen as exclusive whereas "humanity" isn't. It is common to think they share the root word "man" so why aren't they equivalent? The answer isn't simple or necessarily logical. English is messy. Linguists say they don't share a root but, even if they had, current interpretations of words aren't always consistent with past usage or with other words that appear to have a common root. An unrelated example would be "awful". This used to mean "inspiring reverential wonder" but now mostly is a synonym for "bad". "Awesome" is now a synonym for "good". Those two words may share a root but these days have more or less opposite meanings.

There are no doubt several contributing factors to why, currently, "human" and "humanity" are seen as more inclusive than "mankind". Let's start with "mankind". One problem is that "womankind" exists as a word that refers to all women. Use of "womankind" peaked around 1899 and has declined since (as has use of "mankind") but its existence means "mankind" acts in two roles; as both a generic and a term for all men. Women have to mentally include themselves in "mankind" whereas men don't. There are studies showing that male-based generic terms aren't all that neutral as they tend to lead to male-based mental imagery.

As far as I know, the term "human" has not been used as a term for only one gender with modified versions of it for others. Although linguists know the "man" in "human" isn't a postfix, is can look like it is one. In practice, both men and women have to do the brief mental process to modify the "hu" to include themselves rather than only women. For me, these reasons make "human" and "humanity" much more inclusive. Of course, this does not mean I want to erase all past use of "mankind". That would be silly (the modern usage of silly rather than the older usage meaning "happy, fortuitous, prosperous").

I'm aware that many older people don't see a problem here and may even think that "humanity" is an ugly word or proclaim this is "political correctness gone mad". I think it is just language changing as it always has. I've grown up with the term "human" used throughout science-fiction as a term that distinguishes us from alien species or robots. To me "humanity" is a natural term to use and "mankind" feels old-fashioned. I expect my aliens to say "take me to your leader, puny human".

When it comes to the term "un-manned" I've always been a bit confused if that includes everything from instrumentation to tortoises. I prefer to use "robotic" for spacecraft without biological passengers. If robots/software ever become sentient, they may not appreciate being defined by what they aren't i.e. "unmanned". Of course, they may not like the historical baggage of "robot" either.

Ultimately, people can choose whatever language they want to use. They should also appreciate that associations and connotations change with time and an old "generic" term may not be what it once was. In the early 21st Century I'm on the side of humanity.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 23rd Sep 2015 (02:59 BST) | Permalink

Fake New Year 2015

You may be seeing claims that this image shows Europe at midnight on New Year's Eve. It doesn't. It is a mosaic showing lighting changes from 1993-2003.

Faked satellite image
Not the view at midnight. CREDIT: NASA/NOAA

Ways to tell this pictures isn't what it claims:
  1. Time zones - The image covers over 4 time zones so "Europe" has midnight at different times not all at once.
  2. No clouds - The entire continent is rarely free of cloud, particularly in winter.
  3. Ireland - Ireland doesn't just have red fireworks.
  4. Fireworks at sea? - Highly-flammable North Sea oil rigs aren't the best setting for massive fireworks displays.

Although the image is not New Year's Eve, it does show something pretty interesting. It is a mosaic made by the US's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration showing lighting changes between 1993 and 2003. The red areas are lights that are new in that period, blue areas are those that have reduced, and orange & yellow are areas of high intensity lighting that have got brighter.

Footnote: this post is a cut down version of my posts from 2014 and 2013.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 27th Dec 2014 (22:54 GMT) | Permalink

Raising Aspirations

This is a difficult post to write. This has been in my head for years (many years) and it will be very long and incoherent so please bear with me. I may regret sharing these personal things with the world but here goes...

I've just been crying, uncontrollably, into my lunch. It wasn't the fault of my sandwich making skills. It was because I looked at a slide from a talk. Actually, it was the second time looking at it; I looked at it earlier this morning and it had me crying then too. They are only words on a screen. I know that. They made visible, in white and blue, things that have bothered me for about as long as I can remember.

The slide was shown at an Institute of Physics workshop (#raisingaspirations) that was held this morning. I only know about it because I saw some tweets from the RAS's Robert Massey. The workshop was talking about disadvantaged groups and why they don't make it into physics careers (and, presumably by extension, astronomy). The talks included data about the differences in progression for different socio-economic groups at various points through secondary school and university. In summary:

This is a big problem. It is good to have figures to back up what I've observed as I went through the system. Now for a short aside.

The very first experiment I ever remember devising involved a tooth and socio-economics. I can't have been older than about 8 and one of my baby teeth had just fallen out. Nobody else knew about it and I realised I had an opportunity to check a hypothesis. I'd become aware that there seemed to be a link between how much the Tooth Fairy left under your pillow and the income of your parents (and pocket money). Previously I had received 10p for my teeth compared to my classmates who were on 20p or 50p for similarly sized teeth. An income-link on Tooth Fairy payments wasn't mentioned by adults and seemed unfair even for a creature building a castle from children's teeth. So I put the tooth under my pillow and didn't tell anyone about it. In the morning it was still there. I decided to give it another night in case the Tooth Fairy had been busy, but it still didn't go. The Tooth Fairy was over for me. Disproven with 8 year old science.

This is a trivial, and slightly silly, example of the differences I saw growing up. There are many others which are all trivial in and of themselves.

I grew up on a council estate next to well-off areas. For comparison, my estate ranks as 10 (out of 11) for indices of multiple deprivation compared to 2 for many of my school friends. Amongst other things, that means my life expectancy at birth is several years less than them even though I attended the same schools and lived only a mile away!

I was lucky to attend a nursery (presumably paid for by the LEA) as that helps boost later life chances. I went to good schools due to the luck of living near to them. At middle school I missed out on free music lessons because my parents couldn't afford to buy an instrument. I only got as far as the recorder at primary school so can't discuss music grades like others do; it is amazing how many physicists learned an instrument to Grade something-or-other at school.

I was very lucky with my parents. Both had left school at 14 but they knew education was important and instilled in me the idea that learning was good. By the time I was 13 they weren't able to help me if I got stuck with my homework. We went to free museums and galleries, visited old buildings, and occasionally even the theatre when we got late discount (or free seat-filling) tickets from a friend of the family who worked in the box office. They encouraged me with the idea that I could go to university. We even went to a public open day at Leeds University when I was nine. By 14, I was in a single parent family.

At school I was lucky as I could make friends with middle class kids who thought it was normal to study. Many of the kids who lived on my estate didn't have the same encouragement at home as I did and thought learning was for "swots". As school went on they fell behind academically.

By A-Level I was beyond the educational experience of my immediate family. It was hard but I did well even though I was convinced the good grades must have been due to a mix up at the exam board. My neice, who is the year behind me, lived in a different area so had fewer privileges than me. Thankfully, her home environment helped counter that so she was one of the few girls in her year to get good A-Levels. In fact, she noted that those in her year at school were more likely to have a baby at 18 than an A-Level. She is now a very good teacher.

Encouraged by an A-Level teacher, I went for an open day at Cambridge University's architecture department (I was doing Physics/Maths/Art A-Levels). The admissions tutor seemed to be incredibly posh and used over-complicated language that I had no experience of. They made me feel stupid and I knew I didn't fit in. I changed subject to physics and applied to Manchester. In Manchester people seemed friendly and had northern accents (at least some). Surprisingly I got in despite having done badly at A-Level maths (dropping down two grades from my mock exam). The A in other subjects probably helped but I was convinced there must have been another mistake or that they felt sorry for me.

Since primary school I'd been building up to the pinnacle of getting to university. Once I was there I realised I didn't know what came next. I didn't know I was an "undergraduate" until a week or two into term. I was lacking the language that everyone else seemed to know (or hid it if they didn't). I needed to get the courage to ask people what a "semester", a "postgrad" and a "PhD" were whilst also trying to get my maths up to scratch.

University, even in Manchester, seemed very middle class. I knew my background was unlike other students. One of the few working class people I met was my lab partner Vicky. I'm not sure if that was chance or if the person in charge of assigning partners did it deliberately. Either way, it helped to have someone else to identify with. I always felt behind the middle class students and was still having the examiners mistakenly giving me good marks. In my final year, without any real expectation, I applied for a funded PhD place and got it. I then had to work out what this PhD thing was all about even though my actual abilities felt more at the level of a second year undergrad.

Later, I did a research postdoc but the combination of life-long imposter syndrome (both relative and absolute), feeling that I didn't quite fit in, having gone a long way beyond my socio-economic comfort zone, the shame that I got so far when others didn't, not having the sort of character needed to be an academic, and even knowing that I was benefiting from unconscious bias due to being a man and white meant I couldn't cope any longer. I'd reached the end. I resigned.

This is very "woe is me". Sorry. My examples are each tiny things in and of themselves. The point is not that I had it hard. The point is that I was very lucky. I was lucky to have a family who encouraged me. I was lucky to live in a good council house with a small garden. I was lucky to live next to a well-off area and benefit from middle class-ness by osmosis.

I have had more of a struggle than many who attend university but I also know there were many others from my background who had much more to overcome and didn't manage it. Not because of a failure in their character but because the odds were stacked against them since they were children. I'm sobbing (still) because it is so lovely to see an actual slide with many of the reasons written down. Not ignored. Not belittled. Just there. An acknowledgement.

If we want people of all races, gender identities, sexualities, and social backgrounds in the academy (hint: we should all want this) the biases need scrutiny and need to be sorted out. It isn't only the academy. Change will also have to happen in schools and society as the "pipeline" is leaking pretty much from the source.

If you got this far well done. And thank you.

Postscript: this post is about socio-economic disadvantage. As far as I can tell, the workshop also included other disadvantaged groups (and overlaps). I haven't addressed those, not because they are unimportant (they are very important), but because this was personal to me.

P.P.S. This is not a criticism of the people I've known through university. I've been lucky to meet lots of lovely people.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 20th Nov 2014 (16:20 GMT) | Permalink