Sport reported like science

This afternoon a wormhole from a fictional universe opened in my living room. Through it fell a tabloid newspaper. This sort of fictional event doesn't happen every Sunday so, intrigued, I picked it up and had a look inside.

The parallel universe seems identical to ours apart from one difference. They give a huge section of the paper over to in-depth coverage of the latest scientific results. They include tables of results from the latest peer-reviewed papers, graphs, interviews with scientists and comment pieces on the correct use of the right-hand rule. However, their coverage of sport (I counted one article at the bottom of page 12 under an article about a cat using a treadmill) wasn't that great. This is an extract from the Daily Metro:

Weekend footballer rivals Manchester United with latest game

Manchester United has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in expensive grounds and players to play football.

But the club may have met its match in weekend footballer Joe Bloggs after he scored three goals in a match on Sunday near his home in Sheffield. Mr Bloggs's goals sit alongside the achievements of Manchester United.

The game played by Bloggs cost only £39 for the hire of the pitch and he even scored the deciding goal. Manchester United, on the other hand, ended their game with a draw on Sunday even though their team, which includes the likes of Andy Murray and Michael Phelps, is estimated to cost in the tens of millions.

In fact it is only one of many goals the 36-year-old says he has scored in his local weekend league over the past four years.

‘It has become a real obsession and we have had some brilliant games of football,’ said Mr Bloggs, a computer analyst from Rochdale.

I'd write to the Daily Metro to complain about their inaccurate and misleading reporting but they'd probably just tell me that they're not too bothered because sports are highly technical, laced with jargon, and are just a minority interest subject anyway.

Footnote: My complaint about the METRO and Daily Mail articles is about their mistakes and the spin they put on the story. I thought the images by amateur astronomer Steve Loughran were really good and I'm glad they got some coverage.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 30th Jan 2011 (17:37 GMT) | Permalink

Save the cows

"There is nothing as relaxing as a field of cows" - quote from an astrophysicist Image credit: Stuart
This post is not about astronomy. It is a bit of a rant that originated a week or so ago when I happened to read the label on a pot of Yeo Valley organic yoghurt. The label said "we use homeopathic medicines as much as we can to treat our cows". It has a cartoon of a flower next to it. I've never been shocked by a yoghurt carton before. I don't expect to be shocked by yoghurt cartons.

What is my problem? Scientifically (i.e. based on stuff in the real world) there is no evidence that homeopathy is any better than a placebo. Homeopaths claim that diluting a substance (in DHMO), until there isn't much chance that a single atom of it is left, will help cure various illnesses, reduce stress, and even ward-off flies. The mechanism for this is the claim that water has a "memory" of what was previously in it. That memory apparently cures people (and cows). Nobody has shown that this is actually the case. Do homeopaths think about the dinosaur poo that was once in the water they're drinking?

Homeopathy is junk science at a level even lower than the "science" in beauty product adverts. Proper science does big trials, controls for variables, uses real statistics, and reports negatives too. I'm not a pseudo-scientist so I have a questioning mind and can entertain other possibilities. As a thought experiment let us assume that homeopathic treatments can help prevent or even cure diseases. That sounds like powerful stuff. With our open minds, we should also consider the possibility that homeopathic treatments have bad effects.

Just because something is "natural" doesn't make it safe. Radon gas is natural in Cornwall but its existence increases the chance of cancer. Uranium is also natural but I wouldn't sprinkle it on my cornflakes. Also, just because something has been "in common practice for centuries" doesn't make it safe. Lead paint (lead is natural) was common for centuries and even used in cosmetics. It wasn't (and isn't) safe. In our thought experiment in which homeopathy works, it might also harm us.

Are we safe? After all, some homeopathic treatments use deadly poisons as raw materials. Real medicines declare the side-effects. Perhaps homeopaths are reckless types who couldn't care less about the safety of people or cows.

The upshot of all this is that I'm boycotting Yeo Valley and have become disappointed in the Soil Association too after reading their take. If they think homeopathy works, I want them to conduct large scale safety trials to check for detrimental effects on their cows and effects further up the food chain. While they're doing that, they could also check if homeopathy is statistically better than a placebo. I await the findings with interest.

Please save cows from pseudo-science.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 17th Jan 2011 (21:18 GMT) | Permalink

Jodcast Goes Stargazing

The latest episode of the Jodcast is out and it's a good one. It features interviews with three of the presenters of the BBC's recent Stargazing Live as well as the regular Ask an Astronomer segment.

The existence of the January Extra episode is in part thanks to PhD student Evan Keane who asked the comedian Dara Ó Briain, via Twitter, if he would mind being interviewed whilst he was at Jodrell. Dara agreed and the BBC allowed the Jodcast crew, led by Jen Gupta, to go behind-the-scenes to interview Dara, Brian Cox and Mark Thompson ("The One Show astronomer"). I've heard the latest episode a few times now and I think the Jodcast team have done a great job. Dara is very entertaining and it is great to hear Brian Cox go into more detail about his day job than he is normally given the chance to.

Today will be very busy for the Jodcast. As well as releasing this huge episode, they'll be helping out with a Stargazing Live event at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and then hosting JodPub2 at Dukes92 near MOSI. If you're in the Manchester area, go along. It'll be fun.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 15th Jan 2011 (01:19 GMT) | Permalink

Planck's First Science

After many years of hard work by many people, and some stunning early images, I'm pleased to say that the European Space Agency's Planck satellite has just released its first science data (although one paper about extreme radio sources sources has slipped out a day before the rest on the arXiv).

These data aren't about cosmology - the signatures of which are very faint and hard to extract from the data - and we have to wait another two years for those to be made public. The results released today predominantly cover astronomy in the "foreground" to the Cosmic Microwave Background. That pretty much covers most of the Universe and shows what amazing science Planck is doing that is unconnected to its primary mission.

The first news is that a catalogue of around 15,000 "compact sources" (the Early Release Compact Source Catalogue - ERCSC) seen by Planck has been released. Compact sources can be within our galaxy but also include many distant galaxies that are too far away to be seen in any detail by Planck. Although images of these objects would show no detail, the range of frequencies Planck observes over allows us to make a spectrum and then work out the physics of each source. By publishing the catalogue now, people with other telescopes will be able to observe the same objects whilst Planck is still surveying the sky (should get up to 5 full sky surveys out of the coolers). Those ground-based measurements will allow even more science to be teased out of the data.

The results also include interesting work on 'anomalous microwave emission' for which evidence has only started to accumulate in recent years (listen to Prof Rod Davies describing anomalous emission on an episode of the Jodcast). Planck data confirm that this emission is coming from dust grains spinning extremely quickly (tens of billions of times per second!). At the press conference, Clive Dickinson (JBCA) also mentioned the discovery of "dark gas" (not to be confused with dark matter or dark energy) which seem to be regions that don't have much atomic hydrogen or carbon monoxide. This might be a new component of the interstellar medium!

Look out for around 24 Planck papers hitting the arXiv tomorrow or read them on the ESA site now.

I had the privilege to work on Planck for four years and have got to know some brilliant people over that time. As these first science results come out I send my congratulations to all the scientists and engineers across Europe and the US who I've got to know and become friends with. We've built an amazing machine.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 11th Jan 2011 (13:00 GMT) | Permalink

AAS217 Post(er)

Right now, somewhere in Seattle, the American Astronomical Society (the US equivalent of the Royal Astronomical Society) is holding one of their regular meetings. In fact, it is the 217th AAS meeting. I'm not there but it seems many people I know are.

AAS meetings are well known as the conference that all US astronomers go to and is a chance for those early in their careers to find future collaborators, look for jobs and even learn something. I've never been to a AAS (usually pronounced double-A-S) meeting before although I have talked at one remotely from a basement room in Italy using Skype. Skype has yet to replicate the chance meetings, conversations over coffee/tea and discussions in pubs that big conferences provide. If you are at AAS217, and for some reason have failed to hear about it, Rob Simpson is organising a meet-up tonight at 7pm (Seattle time) in the Sheraton.

This year, thanks to some gentle prodding by Alberto Conti, I'm a co-author on a poster that builds on a blog post I wrote last summer. Alberto put in most of the effort for the poster (low res photo in the wild taken by Rob) with some input from both me and Alberto Accomazzi (ADS). Update: Alberto has put a full-sized copy of the poster online.

My original cartoon of an astronomer H-R diagram was a light-hearted look at astronomical careers and included some groups that I theorized might exist (Media Giants, New Media Branch, Academic Giants, and the Dark Astronomers). I was surprised how widely it got discussed in astronomy departments around the world and can only apologise for any research time lost as people tried to figure out where they would appear on it. The biggest complement was when someone I knew from Australia started telling me in a corridor about a funny astronomer H-R diagram they'd seen on xkcd! Oh, to be mistaken for xkcd.

On the AAS poster we've taken real data for all AAS members and plotted several graphs in different Google search/citation/peer-reviewed paper spaces. The biggest thing we've found is that it is very difficult to avoid namesake contamination in the search results. We tried various types of search but all had some problems. Although the plots do seem to replicate a main career sequence, it doesn't really look as though my suggested Media Giants really exist as a distinct group. If we'd had time it would have been great to colour-code the points by years since first publication (or age as a rough proxy) to see how citations/papers increase with age.


Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 10th Jan 2011 (24:00 GMT) | Permalink

Shoddy Journalism

The last few days have seen great coverage of astronomy in the UK. The European Space Agency's Herschel satellite (which the UK is a major part of), and XMM-Newton, released a stunning multi-wavelength image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. It has been covered well by the BBC and Independent. However, some newspapers have done a spectacularly bad job at reporting this story.

This morning Dave Pearson pointed out that the Daily Mail had attributed the M31 image to NASA. Attributing things to NASA, when they aren't NASA's work, is fairly common in the UK so this was annoying but not totally surprising. However, the tone of the article and the misleading way it was written really got me angry. The premise was that "NASA" shouldn't spend money on spacecraft when you can make equally pretty pictures from the ground. The implication is that we build space missions purely to make nice images. We do make nice images but they are first and foremost designed to push back the frontiers of our knowledge. These observations of M31 were made at wavelengths impossible (effectively) to do from the ground.

Over in The Metro, the reporting was even worse. The Metro has a surprisingly good (for a free tabloid) section about space but this particular article seems to have been written by an anonymous "Metro Reporter". The first sentence references NASA, as in the Daily Mail article, but the second sentence even goes as far as to claim the image was taken by Hubble! I realise that Hubble and Herschel both begin with the same letter but that doesn't make them the same thing. This is basic fact-checking.

The same Cambridgeshire-based amateur astronomer, Steve Loughran, took the nice optical images that are featured in both articles. Interestingly, on his blog, he thanks Joanne Riley (BAV Media) and Geoff Robinson (who took the shots of him with his telescope) and seems fairly pleased with the coverage. Did the "NASA" mistake originate with Steve? I'm willing to accept it was an honest mistake but it seems neither the PR agent nor the newspapers put any effort into checking the facts before publication. It isn't difficult. A simple Google search would have done it.

Pehaps this is just another example of news outlets regurjitating press releases with minimal journalistic input. Amusingly, newspapers often complain about the poor quality of fact-checking on blogs. They might want to listen to their own advice.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 07th Jan 2011 (13:11 GMT) | Permalink

More Stargazing Live please

Over the past three days the BBC has done what it does best; it has produced three hours of prime-time programming that has educated, informed and entertained. Even better, has been the fact that it has been about astronomy. Oh, and it showcased British telescopes working across the electromagnetic spectrum.

It was hosted from Jodrell Bank by Dara O'Briain and Brian Cox with live link-ups to locations on Hawaii with Liz Bonnin. We had segments about meteor watching, solar eclipse viewing and multi-wavelength astronomy. We saw newly released images from ESA's Herschel satellite. We even had radio interferometry described live on air.

There were some minor niggles: some people on Twitter didn't like Jonathon Ross, there were some minor inaccuraces (understandable given it was live), and an extra female presenter would have made a better balance (can Lucie Green join the team?). Those are minor complaints though. Overall, it communicated excitement in astronomy to the nation and the overwhelming majority of people seem to have loved it. The overnight viewing figures show that it had 3.6 and 3.2 million viewers on the first two nights making it by far the most popular thing on BBC Two.

Away from the TV screen the programme has certainly had an impact. The #BBCStargazing hashtag was trending worldwide a couple of times and Amazon in the UK has, reportedly, almost sold out of planispheres and telescopes! There will also be over 300 astronomy events around the country over the coming weeks so be sure to check them out.

It is this sort of big-event, unafraid-to-be-intelligent, programming that makes the BBC great. This is what the license fee can do. Can we have some more please?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 05th Jan 2011 (21:25 GMT) | Permalink

Eclipse Pics

This morning there was a partial eclipse of the Sun. No, really. Despite being at a convenient time for us, most people in the UK will have missed it due to a thick layer of cloud. However, Robert Castley from Northamptonshire did catch this nice picture of the partially eclipsed Sun rising with pylons in the foreground. Rob got this image through cloud from near Oxford and Remko go this one from an office window. To me though, the most impressive pictures I've seen so far have been images taken with a 37 GHz radio telescope at Metsähovi Radio Observatory. Thanks to Evan for spotting them.

Eclipse at 37 GHz
The eclipse of January 4th 2011 seen at a frequency of 37 GHz with radio telescopes at the Metsähovi Radio Observatory, Finland CREDIT: Metsähovi Radio Observatory

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 04th Jan 2011 (09:27 GMT) | Permalink

BBC Stargazing Live

Clarification: Given some of the comments, I thought I should make it clear that I don't work for the BBC and am not on the production team of Stargazing Live.

BBC Stargazing Live
Seven and a half years ago my very first blog post was about the BBC Star Party that was to be hosted from Jodrell Bank Observatory. That programme was on a Saturday night in August and was an hour and a half long. Now, over three nights, Jodrell Bank will again be the setting for a BBC star party to coincide with the conjuction of Jupiter and Uranus, the partial solar eclipse, and the Quadrantid meteor shower.

Stargazing Live will be hosted by particle physicist Brian Cox and comedian Dara O'Briain. Dara is a good choice as he has a scientific background and is very funny; I saw his standup show in Salford last year and it was the most I'd laughed in ages. He is pretty well known for programmes such as Mock The Week, Three Men In A Boat and The Apprentice: You're Fired so he should hopefully bring in some viewers who wouldn't tune in otherwise.

I may no longer work at Jodrell but the telescopes operated by my new employer are going to be used on the programme. In fact, Dara has already taken some images using the Faulkes Telescope North and one rather nice image has been viewed almost 7500 times since yesterday already! A while back I made a suggestion for an experiment to do on the summit of Mauna Kea, relating to Herschel, so I'll be interested to see if that makes it into the programme.

Stargazing Live should be a good three nights of astronomy even if the weather tries to thwart sky viewing in the UK. The programmes are on BBC Two and BBC HD at 8pm on January 3rd, 4th and 5th. Unfortunately, they probably aren't accessible to those outside the UK. Amateur astronomy societies, universities and science centres around the country will also be hosting stargazing events over the next couple of weeks.


Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 03rd Jan 2011 (12:50 GMT) | Permalink
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