Origami Antenna

A friend gave me a "Space Origami" set for Christmas. Tonight I decided to try it out. Here is my attempt to make a radio telescope (with a stellar background).

Origami radio dish CREDIT: Stuart

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 19th Jan 2013 (22:36 GMT) | Permalink

Ten hundred words of science

A while back XKCD created a comic called "Up-goer 5". It was about the Saturn V but with explanations using only the thousand most used English words. Inspired by that comic, Theo Sanderson is asking that people describe their research in the same way.

Quite a few astronomers have already taken part. For example:

  • Nicole Gugliucci likes to "write and talk about stars on the computer place";
  • Leo thinks about "how space and time move when we change the picture";
  • Katie Mack asks "what the dark stuff is made of";
  • Ryan says why "stars that burn in a huge way are very important for us to learn about because they tell us how big everything in the sky really is";
  • Keri Bean uses "space buses on a big, cold red rock in space to take pictures of the rocks and the sky";
  • Chris Tibbs says how it "would be easier to see the oldest light if it wasn’t for all the other light that comes from the many many large groups of stars that also fill the entire sky";
  • Emily Lakdawalla says "tiny animals can live when big sky rocks hit them".
There are plenty more examples there. If you'd like to take the ten hundred word challenge, it is easy to submit. The hard part is to keep your language simple.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 18th Jan 2013 (13:02 GMT) | Permalink


Last week, some tweets during the BBC's Stargazing Live got me to thinking about the demographics of astronomers.

The tweets I saw were about the "Down To Earth" shows being dominated by men (typically 2 male hosts, 2 male guests and 1 female guest). Aside from the fact I hated people using the word "token" (which has negative connotations about ability) to describe the individuals who were experts in their respective fields, the under-representation of women in science and technology shows does need to be addressed. First some stats.

As in many fields, women are under-represented in astronomy. The UK membership of the IAU was 12.6% female in 2012. IAU membership quite possibly has a bias towards certain age groups so I found the Royal Astronomical Society figures for those in permanent jobs. At the senior professor level, in 2010, only 7% were women. That's rubbish. This goes up to 28% amongst lecturers. Weighting the RAS figures by the number of people employed at each level gives ~20% of those in permanent positions as women. STFC says that in 2009 28% of astronomy PhD students were female (44% in solar system science!).

You'd hope that the imbalance was down to the senior people having come from a less equal time, and that equality would percolate up, but the picture seems more complicated. The fraction of women to men may actually drop as you go to younger groups. The Institute of Physics shows that only 20% of A-Level physics students are female (age 16-18). The split is pretty similar for those starting university degrees (Graph 5). However, these may be an unfair comparison as physics probably has a poorer gender split than astronomy.

I don't like this imbalance and know that, like everyone, I have a bunch of unconscious (and conscious) biases. Do I help perpetuate the imbalance in things I'm involved with? I helped create a regular astronomy podcast in 2006, and was the chief producer from 2009 to the middle of 2010, so I thought I'd compile some statistics to see. From two listener surveys I knew that the listeners were dominated by men (~85-90%) as are subscribers to Sky And Telescope (95% in 2013). What of the show itself? I've been through the show notes from January 2006 to December 2012 to work it out.

The main part of the show is usually given over to an interview with an astronomer. In total, 362 people were interviewed. Episode-by-episode the gender split varies hugely so I've binned the interviewees by year to look for trends. There is some natural variation from year-to-year but it seems to broadly reflect the imbalance in the professional community with just over 21% being female.

Jodcast Interviewees
Gender split amongst interviewees on the Jodcast 2006-2012 CREDIT: Stuart
The next thing to look at are the rest of the voices on the show; the presenters. For "presenters" I included those reading the news, describing the night sky, answering astronomy questions, interviewing, and those providing the links between items. I didn't include people who appeared in the intro/outro skits. On average this works out as just over 5 presenters per episode but can be as many as 10 (particularly during conference-based episodes). I'm also counting appearances rather than individuals. As before, the episode-by-episode gender split varies hugely as is depends who is able to help out for a particular show. So, here are the results binned per year:

Jodcast Interviewees
Gender split amongst show presenters on the Jodcast 2006-2012 CREDIT: Stuart
There are a few things you'll notice. Firstly, the split got worse in 2007. This was when the show split into 2 monthly shows; although the presenters stayed the same, the distribution of appearances changed. In 2009 I made a concerted effort to bring in as many of the new PhD students as I could to distribute the effort amongst a wider pool of people. In the long term this reduced the workload per person and, it seems, made it more balanced with far more people getting to learn new skills and participate. I handed over the reins in mid-2010 and I've been really happy with my successors. In fact I've been very lucky to work with a great bunch of students and postdocs over that time.

Back to Stargazing and I think we do need more female scientists on TV. This shouldn't have to mean fewer male scientists either; let's increase the overall number of scientists. It isn't just the responsibility of TV producers though. The onus is also on early-career scientists to build their confidence with things like science communication courses and by getting involved with outreach. Hopefully the future will have more variety.

Update (19:31): Just after I posted this I noticed I'd had a reply from the examining body for the G.C.S.E astronomy exam. The EdExcel stats (page 5) show that 40% of those taking the course are female and 60% male. The course is entirely optional and I know that some fraction of the people taking it are A-Level students or older.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 15th Jan 2013 (19:28 GMT) | Permalink

Goodnight Patrick

2012 was a sad year. We lost Neil Armstrong, Sir Bernard Lovell and, in December, Sir Patrick Moore.

For anyone who grew up in the UK, Patrick was synonymous with astronomy. He presented the Sky At Night from a few months before the launch of Sputnik in 1957 right up to and including the current episode which was filmed just before his death. His books and TV appearances got many amateur and professional astronomers into the subject when they were children.

I only met Patrick on three occasions and each one was memorable. The first time I was a student helper at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly in Manchester. He was the editor of the daily newsletter and I had a brief chat with him before needing to go off and let the people choosing a committee to name craters* know that if they didn't hurry up they'd get locked in the building over night. The second time was when the Sky At Night visited us at Jodrell Bank to film for the 50th anniversary of the Lovell Telescope. The third time was at Farthings when I stood in for Chris North once.

I may not have known him well but I know quite a few people that did. He was greatly loved and will be greatly missed. His final episode finished with several clips of him closing the show with "goodnight" over the decades. It was very fitting. Goodnight Patrick.

Patrick and Bernard
Sir Patrick & Sir Bernard at Jodrell Bank in September 2007 CREDIT: Stuart

* Actually, it may have been a meeting to choose a committee that would choose another committee to name the craters. It was that sort of meeting.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 10th Jan 2013 (23:11 GMT) | Permalink

Fake New Year

Update 1 Jan 2014: I originally wrote this post in January 2013 but this zombie fake picture is doing the rounds again. In short: it's not Europe at midnight but shows changes in lighting between 1993-2003 and is from the US's National Ocenanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Faked satellite image
Not the view at midnight. CREDIT: AtheistEarth/Paul Blanchard/NASA. Reproduced here under the fair dealing terms (criticism) of the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

Today I saw this image getting shared around on Twitter. The main source seems to be Paul Blanchard but it had also been tweeted by AtheistEarth over an hour before him. Paul claims it is via @apod - it isn't - and that is why I'd first picked up on it. The tweet says:

Wow. Satellite photo taken at the stroke of midnight GMT on New Years Eve! (Via ) .

The implication is that this colourful image is due to new year celebrations. Can you spot the mistakes?

Hopefully the most obvious give-away that this image isn't what is claimed is that all of Europe is illuminated. Aside from the fact that the entire continent wasn't devoid of cloud cover at that moment on New Year's Eve, you might realise that only the UK, Ireland, Portugal, and Morocco exist in the GMT timezone (other countries not visible in this image do too). At midnight GMT, most of the countries in this image would have been at 1am, 2am, 3am and even 4am. Odd times to be letting off fireworks. Also, I'm not sure if the people on oil rigs in the North Sea are allowed to take fireworks with them.

Despite the image not being at midnight, it does have a real source. The original is the new Earth At Night image from NASA which is a composite of many images taken at different times (hence the lack of cloud cover). Here is part of the original NASA image for comparison.

Real satellite image
A real World At Night image of Europe. CREDIT: NASA.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 03rd Jan 2013 (11:26 GMT) | Permalink
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