Thursday, 24 September 2009

Well said, Alice Thompson

Like, I imagine, several thousand people, I've only just heard about the case of Carol Hill, the dinner lady who was sacked for telling the mother of a bully victim the truth about why her child was injured.

A seven-year-old was tied up with a skipping rope and, it seems, whipped with another one by four other pupils. A dinner lady saw what was going on, rescued the victim, and marched the others into the school and reported them. The head teacher apparently sent a letter home to the victim's parents which omitted the main point: the story varies on whether it says the child was "hurt by some other children", or whether it was simply "hurt in a skipping rope accident". The dinner lady happened to see the mother shortly after the incident and commiserated with her - during which it became clear that the mother didn't know what had happened. She told her the truth - and has been sacked for "breaching confidentiality guidelines".

Margaret Haywood springs to mind: those supposed to be responsible for people's welfare see not so much incompetence or the allowing of suffering to be a crime, as the admission that such a thing is going on. It's so much easier to shoot the messenger than to deal with the problem. Of course in this case the secrecy may have been extra profitable since one of the bullies was the son of a parent governor . . .

There's a great article in the Times by Alice Thompson which I much enjoyed, and which speaks for the many invasions of machinery, paperwork and guidelines over humanity. I liked the comments, too.

It particularly enrages me in this case that if a teacher discovers that a pupil is self-harming, the child is not offered help but is reported to their parents - even if the child is doing this because of their parents and needs a different place to go to talk and let off steam. A friend of mine believed a teacher who said she'd keep such things confidential, and went to talk about it with her, only to be reported instead of helped. Presumably, if a parent can take the blame, that is what the school aims for; while if the school must take the blame, the parent is not informed. To inform or not to inform? It varies. (Apparently another school instructed children not to inform their parents that all their fingerprints were being taken!) But to lie? If anyone can tell me when it's appropriate to lie to a parent, I'd love to hear about it.

Alice Thompson's article talks about the despair of trust in any human that the Department of Education encourages - or rather, that its proponents feel in themselves and forcibly assign to others, rather the way the anti-Obama Americans campaign against a universal health system: their reasoning amounts to, "We're totally selfish and afraid other people might be, too." The Department of Education assumes that all humans will do the worst things possible, and force all of us to treat each other first and foremost in preparation for this - at the expense of the greater purposes such as humanity and nurturing and love. Thompson writes of the terrible feeling of being forbidden to hold the hands of five-year-olds during the crossing of dangerous roads, of being forbidden to comfort little ones who fall over and hurt themselves - of parents being asked to help with the school trips of other children, not their own children, in case they favour their own children in an accident. "But all parents I know are far more safety conscious about other people’s children," she writes. This is logical; you know what your own children will and won't do, and how sensible they are, but not others' children. I always know which of my cats is more likely to do something ridiculous. Cats or schoolkids, it's called motherhood, and that's a very real thing.

The comments section at the end of articles is always fairly depressing, but there are a few I can't resist discussing here. A Max Martin - whose accusations of those who support Carol Hill I really cannot be bothered to address - tells a more important story here:
People are making a mountain out of Mrs Hill. This is only half a story; the other half we will never know due to professional protection of the innocent . . .
Many years ago, I remember the call for similar sackings of the whole school staff and governers, of a school and local police. A woman had been in fear of her life after she and her son were surrounded, pelted and almost killed by a mob of hundreds of pupils. This school gate story made local, front page with a picture of the poor little, butter wouldn't melt in his mouth, son. In fact he was a nasty bully who had had a few snowballs throwen at him by a few younger lads after he beat up one of them. The school had to say nothing in its defence. Some pupils were taken out of the school by parents.
I can well picture it; but there are one or two differences. I'm not sure which "innocent" is being "professionally protected" - the bullies or those who covered it up? - not to mention the slight difference between being hit by a snowball and being tied up; but in any case, this was an incident in which a parent was involved. Good old Paul Lockhart describes the students as "the ones who are most often blamed and least often heard". The massive Every Child Matters agenda did not, as far as I recall, have a single testimony from a child in its multitude of pages, nor link to any studies. It was all about "aims for children" and "agendas" - nothing more than targets and theory. Children's own stories seem not to count. Sure, if I reread the diaries I kept as a child now I'd disagree with most of them; but to dismiss them out of hand is a different thing.

I wonder if Carol Hill being a dinner lady also had something to do with it; with the one exception of a hard-working deputy headmistress, it was invariably dinner ladies and support staff who rescued me from bullies at school (sadly they weren't around the day I was shoved up against a fence, had my arms pinned down and a lit cigarette jammed in my mouth by a large group of girls). I also noticed during my teacher training how poorly teaching assistants ("TA's") were regarded - lower down on the status ladder than the pupils themselves. The teachers would say "his TA" in front of a whole class; they didn't even know their names. To be fair, this may have been due to the huge size of the school and its staff, as well as how busy the teachers were.

In the comments of this article, a Janet Bell who has been a school governor writes down the "mistakes" the dinner lady made. Apparently she should not have said anything to the victim's mother upon discovering she did not know the full details, but gone straight to "senior management" - however long they might have kept her waiting, and who certainly wouldn't have changed their minds, seeing as they chose to do the covering up and already knew what Janet Bell proposes the dinner lady tell them. "She should have made very sure the case details were communicated to senior management; she could have written down her own account to submit, keeping her own signed and dated copy (printing off a dated email to herself and signing it is one way)." How does Janet Bell know the lady did not do this? She hauled the boys into the school where "two of them admitted it", and apparently the accident book states precisely what happened.

Janet Bell goes on to talk about how the dinner lady should have put her concerns in writing once again, and talk to the Local Education Authority in the hope that they would then talk to senior management for her. All this struggle, all this talking to people who don't want to hear, this stressful searching in the dark, this soul-crushing, demoralising burden on the seeker of the truth rather than the proponents of the lies - all this worry that these allied authority figures she turns to will then go and reach some private agreement behind one's back - while there's a seven-year-old in great distress whose parents don't know what happened. The child may have feared punishment from the bullies if she told; she may have been too proud to tell the people whose respect she most wants that other children treated her with such contempt and rendered her helpless. (It's not easy to confess such a thing; many people now unwittingly talk about rape victims "admitting" being raped, as if they were the ones at fault.) She may even have feared her parents wouldn't believe her, and that the school itself would have a go at her for being truthful (this happened to me once, too - my form tutor handed everybody's uncollated school reports at the end of year 8 to the table of the nastiest girls int he class, and asked them to sort them out! I told my parents, who complained to the governers - so he kept me back after tutor time to have a go at me in private. I was lucky because I couldn't have cared less what he thought, for I spent little time in his classroom. For this girl it might be a different matter). And wouldn't it have required uncommon inhumanity to leave this well-meaning, ignorant mother in the dark?

In one version, the seven-year-old's mother is quoted as saying, 'The headteacher had written a note saying Chloe had been hurt by some other children and she was sure she would tell me all about it'. This seems a dreadful burden to put on a hurt child who is so young, and certainly no guarantee of her parents learning the truth.

Certainly it's no good turning the boys who committed the offence into figures of hatred, but doesn't this send out slightly the wrong message? It might actually do them some good to be talked to by their own parents and those of their victim. But it was the adults in the position of supposed responsibility who really are old enough to know better.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Please come along to the new "She is an Astronomer" forum

A couple of months ago, Karen Masters, who's running the She's an Astronomer project on the Galaxy Zoo Blog, forwarded me an interesting job advert. It was for what seems to be my truest profession: you got it, moderating a web forum. Don't worry, I'm not leaving Galaxy Zoo, I'm just taking on something new too: a discussion forum for the "She is an Astronomer" project, part of the International Year of Astronomy.

This project is a worldwide one. It has representatives in Argentina, China, Lesotho, and Hungary, as well as more obvious places such as various European countries, Australia, and the USA. Their front page states their main reason for requiring a project:
Approximately one quarter of all professional astronomers are women. In some countries there are no female astronomers, whilst in others more than half the professional astronomers are female. The drop in numbers towards more senior levels suggests that scientific careers are heavily affected by social and cultural factors, and are not determined solely by ability.
Besides promoting equality in society, and encouraging more women not to be put off from an astronomical career, there's another point which is a nice slap in the face for any objectors: training a talented woman only to put her off at a more senior level is a waste of the men's resources, too. As an aside, when, at age 16, I transferred from a single-sex school to a mixed comprehensive, it was a great insight to see how differently boys approached ideas and problems. While an anecdote has little bearing on the statistics of thousands, I do believe that as much diversity as possible gets the best jobs done - otherwise scientific thinking gets stuck in a rut.

The website aims to collect and share good data for analysis, and to raise issues which women find are concerns in their career in astronomy to find ways to tackle them. It also supports women giving astronomy talks - and has just set up a forum for anyone interested to share their experiences and exchange ideas and good practices. It is chaired by Dr Helen Walker, and there is a lovely article about her successfully getting this project set up here.

So I sent off my application, and on the day of the annual Royal Astronomical Society picnic, Dr Quentin Stanley told me that Hanny and I had both been chosen because of our work on Galaxy Zoo! Even more shockingly, apparently my work as a moderator is known to people outside the zoo . . . so I'm sometimes told, anyway. I was high as a kite for a long time - and have been having to keep it quiet. However, while I was on holiday last week, we received the go-ahead to reveal our new forum and there should probably be a press announcement soon.

The forum is at Do come along and visit - men and women are both welcome, as are both professionals and interested laypeople. (Personally, I have no problem with words such as "layman", since "man" originally means "the human race" - and it's far less clunky. But the older I get the more I feel it's simply a matter of taste, and I'd probably better not start by sparking off linguistic quarrels.) We're putting in lots of threads for you, and look what a beautiful logo the forum has:

I sent in some ideas for a structure of the forum, and proposed an equivalent of the "Object of the Day" scheme we run at the Galaxy Zoo forum: a regular slot for celebrations of the beauty we work with and our discoveries. I proposed that, with only a few of us to start off with, we also don't start off with something daily, but perhaps three times weekly: a special astronomy or space picture; a story of a past or present female astronomer; and a story of astronomy or space news. (This is only a loose plan, with room for many adaptations and extras. I also hope to start getting other members to write them, just as we did a year ago with Zooite Objects of the Day.) Hanny refined the structure I suggested, and Quentin set it up! We are working with a third lovely moderator from Portugal, named Paula, who is studying galaxy mergers - what excellent taste! - and also loves politics, photography, and much more.

We now have a special place to introduce yourself, and our "Feature of the Day" (so far we have the BBC "day in the life of an astronomer", i.e. Dr Catherine Heymans, who did a PhD under the same supervisor as Edd, and Markarian 817 again due to lack of time and imagination on my part). We also have places to talk about science stories, to ask science questions, and to play games and chat - besides, of course, the all-important board about women in astronomy.

Returning to that subject momentarily: the "She is an Astronomer" website has kindly given Galaxy Zoo's blog a special mention. Out of six interviews so far, the only woman who claims to have experienced sexism at work is, embarrassingly, myself. Hopefully I was very clear that this only took place in thoroughly nasty institutions, absolutely never in astronomy. Carie and Kate, on the other hand, both mention the difficulty of moving around from place to place, sometimes country to country. Unemancipated as this may sound, I agree that this is a problem once you become a full adult who has a limited time in which to have children as well. I wonder if there will be less requirement to move as the age of the Internet becomes more and more a part of the way things work - that it will matter less and less where you are. But then that's already very nearly what Kate says about Galaxy Zoo: she believes there are no barriers to women amateurs. Well, that's one thing . . .

We just have one minor problem at the moment: as the big press release has yet to come, but Quentin has given us the go-ahead to publicise the forum ourselves, the forum is now full of Zooites! Not that this in itself is a problem, but we do hope to capture some more people from around the world, and for them not to feel as if they might be on the outside of a clique. So if you don't frequent Galaxy Zoo, please come along. On the other hand, if you do frequent Galaxy Zoo, please also come along because everybody is welcome and Zooites do a darn good job getting everybody chatting and working together. Basically, anyone who is at all interested in the gender gap and science is welcome.

Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Hubble opens its eyes!

Our beloved Hubble Space Telescope has fully recovered from surgery, I mean servicing missions, and sent us back a huge bulletin of incredible images released today. At least two galaxies already known on the Galaxy Zoo Forum are among them, so besides hearing more about Hubble, we've another excuse to get terribly excited as usual!

One is ARP 185. Here is the Sloan Digital Sky Survey picture:

And here is Hubble's. It's worth scrolling down to look at the data, too - the narrower part is over 200,000 light years across!

We also have Stephan's Quintet, which has been Object of the Day twice on the forum, by Jules in March and Waveney last week. This is the SDSS view:

And here is the latest Hubble shot. Incidentally, there is also this older Hubble archive, just as beautiful but less detailed.

I could (and do, sometimes) show you pretty pictures for hours - but what excited me most was an elusive galaxy named Markarian 817. This has proved impossible to find on Google, Google Sky, and the Galaxy Zoo Forum. (Well, there were one or two Google links, but they didn't open on Safari or Firefox.) Hubble took its spectrum in 1997, and took it again since opening its eyes, and look - it's mostly the same, but they have one big difference . . .

(For a larger image, click here.)

A dip in the spectrum means absorbed light. The larger the dip, the more light has been absorbed. That big peak in the middle has risen until it's almost normal. That means a lot of the gas has gone.

Markarian 817 is an active galaxy, 430 million light years away in the constellation Draco. Active galaxies make up approximately 1% of all galaxies, and they are "active" because their cores shine as powerfully as can anything in the Universe: a supermassive black hole, 40 million times the mass of our Sun in Markarian 817's, is drawing in an accretion disk of material, which glows with intense heat and generates a massive stellar wind. Ironically, this means that a supermassive black hole is actually throwing a lot of gas out of the galaxy.

What has happened in this case is that the gas has moved in the last 12 years. Hubblesite writes: ". . . [T]he cloud has apparently been driven out by an outflow of material from the galaxy . . . The disk is driving the material out of the galaxy through powerful winds, produced by streams of charged particles. Some of the outflow rains back onto the galaxy. The rest settles into the intergalactic gas.

"Astronomers want to know how much of the outflow lands in the galaxy and how much escapes into intergalactic space."

I'd love to know that too - it certainly has implications for my own interests, such as the Irregulars project and galaxies which seem to have beyond-greenbelt-suburbs. How much gas is available to each galaxy determines its colour and its star formation. It almost starts to look as if galaxies are performing a sort of unintended gas exchange! Of course, the galaxy might draw its own gas back and carry on powering that active galactic nucleus for many billions of years to come.

I wonder what the spectrum will look like in another 12 years? Or twelve hundred?

Anyway, it's wonderful to see Hubble back in full "health" again. People are suffering from euphoria quite as badly as the Hypervelocity Star team. "Astronomers declared NASA's Hubble Space Telescope a fully rejuvenated observatory," announces Hubblesite. Keith Knoll, team leader at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is reported as saying: "We couldn't be more thrilled with the quality of the images," and "The telescope was given an extreme makeover and now is significantly more powerful than ever, well-equipped to last into the next decade." And David Leckrone at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center: "Prior to this servicing mission, we had only three unique instrument channels still working, and today we have 13. I'm very proud to be able to say, 'mission accomplished.' "

I love it when scientists get so jubilantly excited. Science is something one is never too old to find exhiliarating. Hubble is a great favourite for both scientists and the general public, too - Leckrone wrote movingly in the introduction of "Hubble: The Mirror on the Universe" (June 2007) that every member of the public who asks him his job is fascinated to hear about Hubble, and really wants it to be "saved". Not only because of its beautiful images; not only that these images are available to everybody; but because "we as human beings can take justifiable pride in the fact that we have created and used Hubble for entirely peaceful purposes in a world that suffers continuous conflict and pain. Hubble is noble. And we made it!"

An Internet Treasure Chest

Sometimes the Internet just happens to turn up a glut of delights all in one go, and I just felt like writing an entirely pointless blog post with no purpose other than to put the very best gems here for you to enjoy.

First, we have Richard Dawkins reading out his hate mail. Absolutely hilarious!

Then somebody named "Spikydog" fixed the news . . . Apparently the BNP is to appear on Question Time! Click here, and click the image again, for a larger picture. It's not just the article that's worth a read. Very clever!

Then we have another genius who built an Escher painting with Lego. His blog shows us not only the picture, but how he did it. Perhaps I shouldn't have put all those trains away . . .

On a personally delighted note, people like Crispian Jago have been messing with my stats lately over the Back Knight. Then I came across a mention in the Bad Science forum (I am tempted to join just to ask PAHayes why he doesn't like it!), which then led me on to Ben Goldacre's approach to moderating an online community:

No illegal activity, no libel, this goes without saying, don't be stupid, if you see any, tell a moderator.

Try to be combative, intelligent, and rude, but remember these four things:

# personal anecdotes about your MMR tragedy will be deleted for your own safety;

# childish personal attacks are only permitted when they are funny;

# I may delete people and posts arbitrarily and entirely at random;

# and if your post is more than one thousand words long then you are officially a loser*.

If you see any spam please don't reply, it'll get deleted soon enough. I delete spam in a hurry by looking quickly at what looks like a spam post. If you reply to spam posts, then firstly, its harder for me to spot, but secondly, more ridiculously, if you reply to a spam post, you keep it high up the list of posts, and by keeping it up there you also make it propagate and get onto the list of forum posts on the blog. Apart from anything else this isnt a very good advertisement for the forums, because everyone will think we're discussing viagra and Britney's porn home videos. So seriously, do not reply to spam posts, really seriously, or I might get bad tempered, and delete your login in a fit of childish powerwielding.

. . .

You are responsible for what you post, you are almost certainly traceable.

No pathetic "oooh I think my friend on the forum was libelling me when they called me a knob after I called them a knob too" private messages please.

No, we won't apply all of this to the Galaxy Zoo Forum - but having moderated it myself for 2 years I roared with laughter at all of these and could well remember each of my own experiences with the same types of behaviour! Thanks Ben Goldacre - by the way I must finish reading and review his book soon, but my doctor parents have stolen it and can't stop laughing either.

And finally, we recently had an absolutely charming announcement from Bill Keel on the Forum:
Yesterday, during the final day of DragonCon 2009 in Atlanta, the last panel discussion in its space programming track dealt with citizen science. Pamela Gay (of Astronomy Cast and the GZ Education team) and I were scheduled to share the presentation. Midway through the session, I was talking about online citizen projects in astronomy. About the time I got to describing Galaxy Zoo, she took the laptop (which was projecting on a big screen) and started doing something. With my back to the screen, it took me a few minutes to realize that, right there in front of a whole room full of people, and behind my back, she was... classifying.

Haven't tried classifying galaxies? Give it a try and picture this on a big screen in front of an audience . . . it must have been a real hit!

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Another Citizen Science Project: Hypervelocity Stars at the Zoo

A new blog has just come out: the Hyper-Velocity Stars Project. The blog has been developed by Stellar and Aida from the Galaxy Zoo Forum, and the project by several more zooites. The first post is available, and you may see posts from several different people along the way!

A few months ago, Aida was checking out a possible white dwarf one day, on the Newbies Thread - the wonderful resource made by Tom where new Zooites could practice their picture-posting and ask their first questions. It was listed as a Hyper-Velocity Star. Just a few minutes later, looking for Irregulars, she found another one, at which point she posted both of them onto the Newbies Thread with an explanation.

Now every so often I send nagging messages round to Zooites inviting them to write Object of the Day. It so happened that one of these was shortly after Aida's find, and Tom reminded her of the hyper-velocity stars she'd done. She found a presentation by ZookeeperJordan about them, and Tom searched for more candidates. By 23rd May they had found 10 hyper-velocity stars, and Aida wrote a beautiful Object of the Day about them.

One by one, Zooites began to find more links, and they realised they had a project going. Back in 2003 when Jordan wrote the presentation, there were only 3 found. Now there were several more - at least 16 in the SDSS footprint, 10 of which Tom and Aida had already found. All six, and a possible seventh, turned up over the next several weeks. Objects of the Day appear usually in roughly the order they were posted; this one stayed at the top through subsequent months!

Besides offers of help, several Zooites found many articles describing different ways of turning a star into a hypervelocity star. What are they, and what gave them their speed?

A hypervelocity star is a star moving so fast that it can escape the Milky Way's gravity - like a rocket leaving Earth. The speeds they attain seem to be, according to various sources, between 500 and 4000 km/s. This one, showing the changing position of a hypervelocity star, is courtesy of the European Southern Observatory:

One theory of the generation of such enormous speed is that a binary pair approaches a black hole too close; one goes over the event horizon and the other gains enough kinetic energy to be thrown off outwards. A good general description of hypervelocity stars is at the Encyclopedia of Science.

Another theory is that these stars are created during the merging of galaxies. The New Scientist wrote an article called "Milky Way's Fastest Stars May be Immigrants". A strangeness spotted was that so many hypervelocity stars - just over half of those so far found - seemed to be coming from around the constellation Leo. "What I'm still trying to digest is how a whole cluster went ballistic at the same time," remarked Aida towards the end of May. Astronomers from Cordoba Observatory, Argentina, proposed that they were ejected during the assimilation of a dwarf galaxy into the Milky Way. Because these dwarf galaxies orbit the Milky Way on a "radial path", sometimes coming close to the centre, there would be times when some of their stars would get drawn in very strongly.

Mergers definitely send stars in all directions, as this one demonstrates:
Credit: SDSS.

As an aside, I used to see those tidal tails as "the stars left behind", like ripple marks, or a wake behind a boat. As I began to learn more, and especially after watching videos of merging galaxies, I began to realise they're tidal tails - some stars get flung out of the galaxy in these long loops.

The only problem with this explanation is that the hypervelocity stars discovered so far are all vast, massive stars, recently formed. Dwarf galaxies are usually gas-poor, since the Milky Way nabs their gas; so is it likely to have formed these stars? Warren Brown, an expert of whom more anon, asks "where their gas-rich progenitor comes from." I also wonder if there would be any other trace of this past merger, which would have taken a remarkably short time to vanish since supermassive stars only live a few million years. But perhaps we simply haven't found any small hypervelocity stars yet. Why not? Can only large ones attain such speed? Or are they just easiest to find?

David S. Graff and Andrew P. Gould suggest that our beloved Supernova 1987 A, which makes the 0 in Galaxy Zoo, might have been a hypervelocity star, too! It is moving away from the Large Magellanic Cloud at 18 km/s - not nearly as fast as some of these monsters - Aida states that the minimum speed for it to count as hypervelocity is 250 km/s - but it is still moving at a relative speed which requires an explanation.

Hubblesite lists two more scenarios regarding 14 supermassive blue stars Hubble imaged this year. They are estimated at only a few million years old judging by their stellar winds, which are "plowing through regions of dense interstellar gas, creating brilliant arrowhead structures and trailing tails of glowing gas . . . [like] a speeding boat [on a] lake."

("Stellar Interlopers - Hubble Space Telescope ACS". All the images on this link are worth a look.)

One suggestion is that a star approaches a binary system, or two binary systems approach each other, their mutual gravities making such a mess that one star gains a great deal of kinetic energy. Another is that, in a binary system, one star went supernova. This would be like whirling a brick around your head and then letting go of the string - the brick would be flung off.

These particular stars are a special case because of their "bow-shocks" and they all seem to come from a dense starcluster.

Zooites supplied a great many articles, and Stellar made a collection of them here. If you fancy something really tough to chew on, try this paper!

So now what? Well, Aida and eight or nine other zooites want to find more of these dashing cheetahs among our stately spiral. As the Hubblesite article remarks: "Astronomers have not spotted many of these stellar interlopers before because they are hard to find. 'You don't know where to look for them because you cannot predict where they will be,' Sahai says. 'So all of them have been found serendipitously, including the 14 stars we found with Hubble'."

A lot of Galaxy Zoo is serendipity. "Everyone can do it...that's where I come into play!" Aida wrote to me earlier. "I jump from coincidence to coincidence like a jumping bean. Next will be the green blob, and then the galaxy without a core - well, I will be busy for the next 50 years or so." But she's not just relying on chance. The enterprising Zooites have set up a special thread in the forum to invite suggestions for how to find more stars. Is there something funny in their spectra which will indicate what they're doing? Is there a way we can watch the sky for many years and see if any stars have radically changed position? And, of course, how many more zooites would like to join in this project?

ZookeeperJordan joined in Aida's Object of the Day with some advice; more recently, Karen Masters at Portsmouth heard of the project too - via the She's an Astronomer and Galaxy Zoo part of our blog, as Aida is going on that soon and sent her interview in. By a wonderful stroke of luck, Karen knows the aforementioned expert, Warren Brown. He works at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory at Harvard and is the leader of the Hypervelocity Star Project. Karen has offered to put him in touch with the hypervelocity zooites, and Aida's happiness ratings went hypervelocity too! She has offered up her and her fellow Zooites' assistance with anything he'd like done in return. That is the great thing about amateurs and scientists working with each other: the scientists can do the difficult stuff, and the amateurs can cope with the huge amounts of information out there and ask more and more questions. Chris once joked (for that Guardian article about us) that they "may just be putting themselves out of a job", but to my mind it's more that we both need each other.

Other zooites so far involved in the project are Mukund Vedapudi, Curtis Garrett, Tom, J.A. Martins, Jules, Gargleblaster, and Dave. Aida insists that I also mention myself for "being the fairy godmother", and Waveney, whose technical genius and never-failing generosity have been crucial, as "fairy godfather". Jules, Dave and Mukund have unearthed some possible hypervelocity stars. What is required now is to find a way to see whether they are or not, and to continue the search.

Aida is nervous about Warren Brown reading their work and seeing a mistake, so she's very determined that they get everything right! For example, she's keen to emphasise that no. 3 is not on the SDSS footprint, and no. 17 may or may not be one. But she's very excited too. "I've been walking on sunshine ever since she told me," she said of Karen's news.

"We must have lost our minds collectively," she said to Stellar earlier today.
"Yup, totally bonkers," replied Stellar, who, like Aida, spends most of her time at the zoo. "But insanity is a virtue."

Or, to put it another way: the great Waveney's signature is "We all help at the cutting edge of ignorance" - Stellar and Aida suggest that they just went over that edge. Like those stars, speeding out into the depths of space, who knows what they'll find?