Thursday, 28 October 2010

How to Prove you're Inclusive: Be Slick

A couple of years ago, as many of you know, I was doing the science PGCE - training to be a secondary school science teacher. As many of you also know, I didn't complete the course. But many things happened during it which I'd still like to share. Here's one of them.

A well known trick to get people thinking in science lessons is to give them a surprise. For example: Here are the four fundamental forces, which do you think is the strongest? Put them in order. Then, once everyone's claimed that gravity is the strongest, put a magnet on the table and use another magnet to make it jump up - demonstrating that magnetism is stronger than gravity.

(At least, that particular strength of magnetism is stronger than Earth's gravity. Do the same experiment on a neutron star or with a really pathetic little magnet and you might get a different result. *Update: how embarrassing. I'd missed the point of the experiment. The Earth has a much larger mass than the magnet and that is the important thing. If you put 1kg of magnetic stuff and 1kg of non magnetic stuff next to each other in space, the magnetism will - for this given weight - carry much more force than the gravity. Anyway, back to this post.)

I witnessed a similar method of teaching in a PHSE lesson (Personal, Health and Social Education) for a year 7 group (11-12 year olds). It made an excellent point. The task: get into pairs and draw what a bully looks like and what a victim looks like.

The pupils spent some considerable time at this task, getting the angle of the cigarettes and baseball caps exactly right, showing teeth and stubble, paying attention to the way people were standing. The pictures were detailed and graphic. They took a great deal of trouble over them.

The form tutor then went up to the board and drew two identical stick figures and said: "Exactly the same."

The point being that you can't tell that someone's a bully just from what they look like. And they went on to discuss what to do about bullies.

The problem with that was that those kids had really put a lot of effort into their work, only to have it universally rubbished. Next time they might be a lot more cautious about going to so much trouble. They might start fishing around for what the teacher's not saying. Get into the habit of that and lessons become a game of "Guess what is in the teacher's mind", as well as "Avoid taking any trouble, you'll only look stupid." Neither of these attitudes are conducive to learning. I don't recall there being any discussion about why bullies were perceived to be big and scary-looking, let alone the teacher acknowledging the work the pupils had done.

The very same week, I attended a day at college focussing on people whose English was not their native language. It was not taken by our regular professors, but two ladies from a public project dedicated to helping such people - I forget the exact details. Some of their demonstrations were excellent, such as one of them playing a gypsy lady who only spoke Spanish trying to get her kids enrolled in a local school, and the other playing an indifferent council worker who shoves a long complicated form at her, is embarrassed by her half-English-half-Spanish attempts at asking questions and keeps her head down hoping she'll go away. I enjoyed a lot of the day and felt even more determined to help the (very few) non-native pupils in the schools I worked in.

A complication was that this was an area with an almost exclusively white population. One of the demonstrators was brown-skinned and there was one Muslim girl in one of the classes I taught, and I think that was about it. We did have a lot of Eastern Europeans - I was living with three of them, and they were the nicest housemates I've ever had - but all of them were pretty fluent and generally I think doing fine. For me, a born Londoner, who'd spent the previous six months in Brighton, this was not my natural environment at all; and the acute, carefully-worded, self-conscious discussions about it made me extremely uncomfortable. It was like suddenly having to be incredibly conscious of the fact that the sky is blue, and that if for a moment your mind happened to drift into thinking of the sky any other way, that was morally wrong and everybody would know. And for the locals who did not venture far outside their area, this whole business was theory, not practice.

In fact, the area was so homogenous that in many schools, ESL (coded term for English as a second language) pupils often had to be protected from trainee teachers struggling to pass their course - you have to provide evidence that you have done specific work on these pupils in order to get your teaching certificate, but there were far fewer of them than of trainee teachers!

What also worried me was that the demonstrators did not seem to be offering realistic strategies to help non-native speakers. They seemed to be coming from an all-or-nothing perspective - these people need to be with full-time interpreters, for example. They also spoke at length about how gypsy children were legally entitled to a third of the year off school for "cultural reasons", but were unclear whether or not this level of absence would lead to the school being penalised for the effect this would have on the league tables. All in all, asking this much from people unused to anyone remotely different from them was, I could sense, engendering resentment and indeed jealousy, rather than being constructive.

But I may have been biased, for these people dealt me a humiliation that still stings today, two years on.

They set us an activity and sat us all down at tables of ten or so people. They kept us in strict silence, and then they went around with one of those sheets of star stickers. (I loved those when I was tiny.) Reminding us to keep absolutely silent, they put one onto each of our foreheads, not showing us what colour it would be. One guy whispered to his partner, "What colour am I?" and was told. Once they'd finished doing this, they cried out, "Now, still without talking, sort yourselves!"

"Into what?" somebody asked.

"No further instructions, just sort yourselves!"

Yes, it did dawn on me that these stars were supposed to represent skin colours. But I immediately dismissed the idea as too childish for a professional postgraduate course. For one thing, everyone knows their skin colour, but we didn't know what colours our stars were - presumably, we were supposed to find out. And they'd just done that wonderful demonstration about the poor lady unable to ask any questions. So I concluded this must be about non-verbal communication.

I waved my hands at two girls who both had green stickers on their foreheads and mimed them coming closer together. Immediately their eyes lit up, everybody else caught on and that was how most people did the experiment. I promptly found out this way I had a green sticker.

Yeah, you can guess what happened. Because I agreed to be sorted by colour, and because I had started it, I was shown up to be the racist, the enemy of everything they were trying to do. All right, not in so many words. "You started it, and that was good," they said in that uniquely ironic tone . . . and went on to ask two people how they'd felt - one had been the only silver sticker, and one hadn't got one at all. They played their parts beautifully, mourning how left out they'd felt.

The other science teachers to be (most of whom I didn't feel liked me very much, and who I generally avoided) had been at the back, and had seen exactly what was coming and simply all sat together. They claimed they'd sorted themselves "according to our subject" and were publicly praised and held up as an example to us all.

Ranting about this to a friend that evening, she nodded wisely and said, "Oh yes, there have been psychology experiments about that."

Can you imagine how I felt? Duped. Stupid. Mortified. Hopelessly, hopelessly guilty, as if I'd committed a crime against a sector of my fellow human beings who were already being victimised. I'd always hung around with the international students at university. I'd chatted with my Ghanian housemate in Brighton about Steve Biko and how unbelievably stupid some people could be; he'd always cheerfully told me what it was like to be black - no big deal except when people made it so. I'd lived in Spain for a year, and experienced not understanding a word of lectures, failing most of the exams through my bad Spanish, having chalk thrown at me presumably because I looked different, and having to correct hilarious assumptions about England such as that we all live like spoiled lords and have breakfast in bed (yes, really!) . . . and, on the other hand, much more importantly, I'd experienced people genuinely taking me under their wing, slowing down their talk, not minding my mistakes, lending me their notes and not expecting any major gratitude. How could I defend myself? Anyone who says "I'm not a racist" is usually about to add "but I wouldn't want my daughter to marry one."

And the main thing I learnt was: never believe what other people say. If they tell you to do something, they probably mean you to do something else.

And, even if the possible trap should be far too childish and basic to be the focus, that doesn't mean it isn't.

Hardly healthy.

Also, I learnt that theory and models that bear no relation to reality are still very prevalent. What has a suddenly and arbitrarily placed star sticker, whose colour you don't know, have to do with permanent skin colour? Nothing that I could see. What was the big deal with sorting ourselves into groups, when groups are how both pupils and trainee teachers did most work and how people congregate socially anyway? It would have made a lot more sense to say "Don't you dare talk to anyone with curly hair/blue eyes/who wears glasses" and then afterwards, if they must, "How did that make you FEEL?" Would I have wanted my fellow Spanish students to feel guilty that I didn't understand the lectures, that I was very pale in comparison to them? Don't be so ridiculous! Did I want a full-time interpreter? Splutter! What sort of person could possibly want that sort of thing?

Not at any point during the day did we ever get near discussing the classroom or realistic situations. Not once was the issue raised, for example, of "What do you do if some kid makes a racist remark?" or "How do you go about getting such-and-such some help with something you can't deal with alone?", let alone "What if someone's being bullied for the colour of their skin?" No, the day was about legalities, and an in-depth examination of ourselves, after which I felt unable to face the others - and which I'm still embarrassed to write about. I can hardly tell if I'm more embarrassed at being so publicly conned, or in case anyone really thinks that I would seriously split children into skin colour groups or something.

To be honest, while I've learnt to be very skeptical of claims, I'm a very straightforward and trusting person. That makes it easy to set traps for me. But it also makes other people feel safe when I'm there. They don't have to dig for extra meanings, or worry that I want something different from what I say. In the context of the classroom, I suppose that would mean it would be easy to lie to me about why you haven't done your homework - but it would also be setting a good example. As in: don't be slick, don't be devious, don't show off, there's no need. Just be curious and nice to others. That's how I try to run the Galaxy Zoo Forum, and that was how I tried to run the classroom, and it seemed to work all right. There are plenty of things I don't like about myself, but my trusting nature is not one of them. I like myself that way. Why should I become distrustful and suspicious and see tricks everywhere in order to avoid being labelled a racist? How does that make sense?

The more people start setting traps for each other, the less honest we can become with each other - and, frankly, the less we'll then be able to talk about real problems and what to do about them, for all energy will go to defence. And how can you enlist a group of people to help you deal with something when you're frightened of what they're going to publicly call you? That's how to get everyone to keep their head down and not draw attention to themselves - and when something needs sorting out, it wouldn't get done.

And is worrying and worrying about whether or not you're a racist really productive? Does guilt, self-consciousness and an avoidance of certain words really improve the situation for other people? (Update, May 2013: if said language is oppressive, of course yes.) Or does it just make you feel scared and them feel awkward? Here's an extreme example. For another, I've heard of people being condemned for saying "black coffee". That, dear friends, implies that there is something wrong with being black, but that you as a white or whatever else colour person are too sanctimoniously polite to say so. I cannot think of anything more isolating and humiliating than to be thought inferior, but for those around you to smugly think the better of themselves for using elaborate language to avoid saying so - and probably wanting a receipt, too. Get lost.

Myself, I like Allan Sandage's quote: "All humans are brothers. We came from the same supernova."

(From Hubblesite.)

Oh, and as a parting shot, that group of trainee teachers who were publicly praised for spotting the trap and therefore being non-racist? One of them, the very next morning, referred to one of the demonstrators in disgusted tones as "That Paki".

Whether you're black, white or bloody rainbow coloured - what do you think?

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Book Review: "Big Questions - The Universe" by Stuart Clark

I'd better start this post by declaring an interest.

A few months ago I was contacted out of the blue by a friendly lady named Marta from Flint PR, inviting me to review a book, and asking me if I knew of any more bloggers who'd like to review it. I'm always up for getting a free book in exchange for writing a review, so I naturally said yes and alerted my astroblogging friends. I fear that by now she'll have put me on the blacklist as someone who nicks their books and doesn't carry out her promises, as I was probably supposed to do this in July - and you know what it's like, the guiltier you feel the worse it gets, like writing birthday thank you letters. Anyway, Marta, look, I've done it - though I'll understand if you don't want to bother with me again!

The book was from the "The Big Questions" series, subtitled "The Universe"; the others (so far) are Philosophy, Physics and Mathematics. I declare a subsidary interest: it's by Stuart Clark, who also wrote The Sun Kings and of whom I am a great fan. He's a very friendly and interactive Twitterer, happy to answer questions and generally a very encouraging sort of person.

He's divided up the topic into 20 questions, ranging from the obvious "What is the Universe?" to the basic "Why doesn't the Moon fall down?" to the contemporary "Why is 75% of the Universe a mystery?" to the uncertain "Do other intelligent beings exist?" to the downright brave "Is there evidence for God?" He chose the questions himself. You can see more of them in the link above.

Now, if you ask for my opinion, I'll give you my opinion - as some people have been rather shocked to find out. My opinion on the design and format of this book is that it is ghastly. The cover is made of that criss-cross stuff you get on nasty cheap folders. The pages are rounded at the edges, looking like a dreaded office diary, and smaller in the middle, so you can't riffle through them. There is no space between the heading of a subsection and the first paragraph, but there are spaces between the paragraphs. (This blog does that automatically too. I hate it.) The introduction paragraphs and the diagrams aren't aligned with the text and huge areas of paper are wasted, which does my eyes in. Stuart has inserted beautiful, illuminating, carefully chosen quotations to go here and there in chapters, and those appear in boxes with only the corners showing, as if the words are trying to burst out like parasites and escape.

Well, I did warn you. (Cumbrian Sky has more positive comments about the book's appearance if you want balance!) I suppose it would suit an ashamed closet astronomer who wants his or her colleagues to think they're reading something else. However, may I also add that this is a good moment to mention not judging a book by its cover?

Because it's a gorgeous book! It focusses heavily on the facts, the science, rather than trying to awe us with pictures. It presents the science that's been discovered so far, as well as what we don't yet know. Sometimes Stuart starts a chapter with a historical anecdote. Other chapters he starts by setting out the basics, or describing a method of measuring something to do with the question. You get a very gentle introduction to each issue, even when the issue itself (and the rest of the chapter) is enough to make your head spin.

The book is not afraid of uncharted territory (as scientists say, if you know what you're doing, it's not research). Kepler invented his laws of planetary motion before we knew what caused the planets to move. Pauli invented the neutrino, as Stuart writes, as "a desperate remedy" to account for lost mass in nuclear fusion - twenty-six years later, neutrinos were discovered. Stuart discusses dark matter and dark energy, but also modified Newtonian dynamics, "quintessence", and the idea of overturning the cosmological principle, as means to account for the 96% of mass that we cannot see and the expanding acceleration of the Universe. I can't pretend to have understood it all, but the nice thing with this book is that it's broken up into lots of little chunks you can go back to several times. Actually, that's one thing that kept me reading it for so long. I kept going back and looking at things again. Although each section is independent of the others (there's very little "see such-and-such a chapter" business), my mind got a lot clearer when I re-read and re-re-re-re-read, trying to take difficult concepts in.

There's a great variety of subject matter. In the chapter "Are we made from stardust?" we get taken into the world of biology, of the definition of life, of the intricate complexities of amino acids, of experiments and fireballs and meteorites and uncertainty. So taken in, in fact, that the "stardust" bit, of which we are reminded at the end, comes as a bit of a jolt.

One chapter really threw me and left me feeling very frustrated: "Can the laws of physics change?" We began with the story of cave in Gabon which is, as far as I know, the site of the only natural nuclear reaction that ever took place on Earth. I remembered a very pro-nuclear power lecturer at university telling us about that site, remarking that the products of the reaction haven't moved since (therefore, his point was, nuclear power is safe). How the uranium built up due to being carried along by water and deposited, and why it set off a chain reaction, was clear - until this bit:
The nature of the nuclear reaction appeared to have changed and that could only happen if the laws of physics had changed too. Research conducted in 2004 showed that the strength of the force governing the nuclear reaction in Oklo had been different by a tiny amount, less than five parts in 100 million, from what it is today.
That's all we learn - unless I've managed to miss the explanation every time I read the book (possible, I suppose). What aspect of the nature of the nuclear reaction had changed? What laws of physics had changed? What force governing the nuclear reaction? Different how? I'm hardly going to care what year the research took place in if I don't know that, or who did the research or what they were doing or what they found, am I?

And yet even from that paragraph you'll probably see how clear and easy Stuart's style is, how gently he takes us along - his text is not hideously condensed or full of jargon; he doesn't rush us; he explains exactly what he's talking about. Except in this one chapter, and one out of twenty isn't much to complain about. In any case, he's spurred me on to try and find out for myself, which if I was a bit less lazy I might have done by now.

I think some reviewers have wondered what the chapter "Is there evidence for God?" is doing in that book, but I found it very useful. It goes into the dilemma of exactly how fine-tuned the Universe is for life. There are a lot of terrifyingly exact coincidences that have allowed matter to exist, and carbon and oxygen to form readily in stars, and solids to form . . . But would slightly different conditions, perhaps, have been even more suitable for life, perhaps a different sort? Are there a lot of alternative universes which have these different conditions? As Stuart explains, the Universe keeps throwing surprises at us, and showing us systems (such as Jupiter-sized planets orbiting very close to their stars) which we thought were impossible - perhaps similar surprises will come on the subject of life. There is a lot we don't know yet. But Stuart clearly sets out what we do know, and there is definitely plenty to please both sides!

I'd recommend this book to anyone who knows a bit of physics and cosmology - and especially to those many people who know enough to start thinking up lots of fancy theories but have no way of testing them, other than to appear on the Internet and usually get refuted by scary mathematics they don't understand. Actually, I'd recommend it to anyone who likes reading astronomy but doesn't get much time, as it's perfect for dipping into and out of, or to anyone with lots of niggling questions and uncertainties. There's plenty I still feel I don't know after reading it, but that is of course always the way.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Cascades of Cassini's wonders



Saturn at equinox, found on APOD, imaged by Cassini.

I first fell in love with Cassini back in early 2007 when Mark Leese, who works on the project, came to give us a talk at Sussex University. At the time, Huygens had comparatively recently dropped onto Titan's soil. I remember three things most clearly from the talk. One was the video of Huygens spinning down on its parachutes, one of its instruments going thud-thud-thud like my heartbeat. Another was when he asked if we wanted a break, and Tim Metham, our course tutor, replied: "No, this is riveting!" - he wanted to hear it all, right now! And finally, he took us on a tour through Saturn's rings . . . those little blocks of ice, once thought to be dust and rocks, but made of frozen water, so they gleam . . . many of which looked like little dots - but one was blue. Was it an anomalous blob? No - it's the Earth.

And it wasn't for another couple of years that I encountered the traditional Pale Blue Dot, which you can see and listen to here. But the lump in the throat was exactly the same.

Here it is again, an insignificant point of light, a tiny flicker against this backlit Saturn:
Do read its caption on APOD. Imaged by Cassini.

I'm a poor substitute for Carl, but nevertheless I tried to give a little of that sense of hugeness in my Tea with the Stars lecture the other night. I described to the audience how the rings had scattered the sunlight to brighten up Saturn from behind - and then I zoomed in on the Earth. I don't know if it came across. It's often too personal to say.

Back to more practical terms, I was thrilled to be asked to write a piece for Astronomy Now's yearbook on what Cassini will be up to next year, and Keith, the editor, is happy for me to blog about what I found out.

I e-mailed various Cassini scientists and was answered by two, Carl Murray and Joe Burns, both of whom agreed to my ringing them up and taking up lots of their time with asking occasionally silly questions. Although I really must invest in a dictaphone or something else to record what people are saying (at the time I just scribbled it down; they were very sympathetic about waiting!), it's definitely easier to get information out of people by talking to them than by e-mail. I could ask very general questions and let what they said lead up to specifics; often the specifics came by themselves, rolling on waves of enthusiasm. I love talking to people who are exhiliarated by what they're doing! I hope it goes without saying that neither they nor Keith are responsible for any errors I have made . . .

Meanwhile, Keith had kindly pointed me to Cassini's 2011 timetable. That took some dissecting - mostly drawing up tables of types of event. To summarise, it'll make 16 orbits, usually using Titan's gravity for the slingshot effect but making 30 course corrections. It'll look at the Sun and our pale blue dot 11 times. Cassini has an elliptical orbit, allowing it to view moons at different distances from Saturn, and also goes "through the ring plane", from north to south, 29 times! This isn't through one of the actual rings, obviously; it picks fairly empty areas. But even so, it'll need to "employ protective mesaures" half a dozen times or so. I asked Carl Murray what these were and he said mostly turning the instruments inward, except obviously the cosmic dust analyser which loves that sort of thing.

And what about Cassini's main job - the moons? Well, as you'll see, it heads past lots of those. Most passes are only distant ones, though these can be useful, Joe Burns explained to me, as they show you the whole moon rather than just a "patch" of it; this allows them to check general brightness, which in turn tells us about their atmospheres, temperatures and so on. But the important, nearby passes will be Rhea, Enceladus, and Titan. Those will be checking the moons in great detail.

Rhea and Janus from Cassini. NB I'm finding all these on APOD but (update, Feb 2011) have just been told off by the legendary Carolyn Porco for not making it clearer that Cassini took them. All the originals can be found at that link. I'm now updating the links wherever possible - it's not easy! I will however keep the APOD links alongside as they are friendly and informative.

Here's where Huygens landed:
Tethys behind Titan from Cassini.

(A friend remarked that whenever he talks about Cassini he feels he should just shut up and show the pictures. I know how he feels! You can easily waste half a day going to APOD Search and typing in "Cassini" . . .)

Titan is the only moon in the Solar System with a thick atmosphere. This atmosphere is actually denser than the Earth's, and is mostly methane. However, this methane is split apart by sunlight, and if Earth is anything to go by this generates free radicals, which would then react with other methane and anything else around such as nitrogen to generate quite large molecules. This makes the famous haze which we can't see through. Cassini can see through to some extent with radar and IR. Radar doesn't bounce off liquid, so these dark patches were lakes:

Found on APOD; taken by Cassini Radar Mapper.

Herewith some beauties that Huygens found when it detached itself from Cassini and dropped down into Titan's atmosphere . . .

The landing site (having trouble finding the original one here) . . .

From eight kilometres high (JPL/Cassini) . . .

About five kilometres high, a fisheye view . . .

Rivers and lakes, as predicted (Cassini) . . .

And rocks and sandiness, just like Earth, or Mars. (Cassini)

And an artist's impression of what it looked like there.

So there we are. Titan is a solid world - but its surface is shaped like the Earth's, because of weather. That implies a cycle. Not a water cycle, for all water is frozen hard as rock there: it is, according to our best guesses, a methane cycle. It seems that those lakes and rivers are liquid methane, and methane rain falls from those hazy clouds. What we don't know is what drives the cycle: when does it evaporate or liquify? Is it the Sun - far less powerful out here, nearly ten times as far from Saturn as from the Earth (and those studying basic physics will know that means nearly 100 times less radiation, if I remember correctly) - or is it something else; volcanic activity perhaps? Can Titan hold onto its envelope of gas, or is it slowly losing it, as Mars probably lost most of anything it had lighter than carbon dioxide? The team may have found evidence of a changing coastline, but it's hard to tell, since these things take a long time to occur. There are still a few corners here and there of Titan unmapped (good old Huygens only lasted there an hour and a half), which is one of the tasks set for Cassini to do in its remaining estimated 7 years of life.

There is also some argument about wind on Titan. Dunes appear to point against the wind; this may be because only storms which occur rarely and go the opposite way from normal are strong enough to shift the sand. All in all, there are lots of delicious mysteries to go.

Besides its moons and rings, Saturn has a very complicated magnetosphere. Any planet with a molten core (that is, Earth plus the gas giants) has one of those. Do play around with it in this animation. Magnetic fields give off radio waves, which allows Cassini to study it, and it's got quite a few objectives on its (so to speak) hands. What's especially interesting about Saturn's magnetosphere is its interaction with its moons. Some moons have actually been found by local drops in the charged particles, which the moons take up - come to think of it I'm not sure if that's by gravity or by something else, sorry folks and anyone who can enlighten me and my readers, please do. (Good job this is a blog and not a news article. Of course, it may be that nobody yet knows why moons take up the charged particles . . .)

The effect of Saturn's aurora at its poles, from the VIMS probe, found at guess where. Sometimes these charged particle storms "punch through" Saturn's atmosphere, or indeed, drag it upwards. There are still a lot of mysteries and surprises - it was due to studying this magnetosphere that the moon Rhea has been hypothesised to have some kind of rings!

When I asked Carl Murray about this, he laughed wryly and said, "Well, that depends on who you believe!" He sent me a paper which describes their repeated efforts to go back to Rhea and find these rings again - which failed. Something is causing a local drop in charged particles; as yet, we know not what . . .

Rhea, the second-largest moon, whose surface is patchy and worn.

And, for me, the biggest surprise of all? Guess what's contributing not only to the very diffuse e-ring (the faint, outer one you see in that gorgeous backlit picture), but to the magnetosphere? The moon Enceladus.

Here it is, right in the middle.

These
These fountains are water. To be exact, they are salty water, indicating a rocky presence below, and they are ejected from the south pole by geyser activity. But why? Joe Burns remarked to me that something as small as Enceladus shouldn't still be hot; that it still is "calls into question our understanding of how things work" (always an exciting sort of sentence in science). It may be because it's in resonance with Dione, as Ganymede, Europa and Io are around Jupiter. This may be causing tidal shifts and heating.

Ultraviolet light from nearby stars is dimmed by these fountains, indicating that there's plenty of material there. Out in space, of course, with little or zero pressure but plenty of radiation flying around, much of it won't stay as water, but will break up into the charged particles that make up the magnetosphere.

Incidentally, the moons within the E-ring reflect more light than Saturn's other moons, indicating that they get blasted by these charged particles. I suppose to say that Enceladus "washes" them is going a little too far, but the thought made me smile. Actually, it's because such particles move pretty fast, and that melts their icy surfaces and keeps them smooth.

Another view of Enceladus's vents - if you click the first link, you'll see it's upside down! It makes for a terrific video too.

Enceladus looks, at first, like a pretty placid sort of world in comparison to all this trouble it's making - until you notice those tiger stripes. They indicate regions where the ice has melted. The stripes have a different temperature and composition to the rest of the moon, but as far as I know that's all we can say at the moment.

So, besides a very strange magnetosphere, unique rings, and the only moon in the Solar System with a dense atmosphere (Triton would have a similar one if it was warmer - on Triton, the methane is frozen, much as water is on Titan), Saturn has two moons where liquids are present. Could life exist in Titan's methane lakes, or under Enceladus's ice? Organic compounds and a liquid medium are present in both. I doubt it would be life like ours. I won't be personally disappointed if there isn't any. When people ask me if I believe in life on other worlds, I tell them that I accept my own ignorance on the matter and am simply waiting to see - which many people do not consider an acceptable answer! But life or no life, there's plenty for Cassini to do in its probably six remaining years.

Yes, it's due to last until about 2017. In fact, all flybys are planned until then. It may change, of course. But that's about how long the remaining rocket fuel should last. Once that time comes near, Cassini will head out a long way, 10,000km beyond the F-ring, to survey Saturn and all its moons from afar; then it will head in again - right into Saturn's atmosphere. While it's still transmitting, we might get our first glimpses of what it's like under that giant planet's visible surface. Further and further in it will head . . . until that's the end of the mission. And what an extraordinary mission it will have been.

Thanks to Keith at Astronomy Now, and Joe Burns and Carl Murray of the Cassini team for all their information, guidance and encouragement.

This was my last slide at my recent Cassini talk.

Watching science launch like a rocket


Despite an exceptionally lazy weekend, I'm still feeling slightly breathless from a ridiculously active couple of weeks. Here's what I did for the first three days - October 11th to 13th, Monday to Wednesday.

Well, actually I'm not allowed to tell you exactly what I was doing on Monday; suffice to say that Jules, who moderates the Moon Zoo forum, and I went to Oxford to talk to Arfon and Rob about a new project. It looks terribly exciting. I think it'll work well.

I asked Rob why he calls himself Orbiting Frog, and he told me that frogs have been in orbit as well as chimps and poor Lassie. But they don't get the same sort of publicity. According to good old Wiki, the first creatures in space were fruit flies. Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana, etc. etc. In fact, Lassie is a lot better known than Albert II, a chimp who was launched into space in 1949, only to die on impact upon returning to Earth.

There's one random fact of the day, to take your mind off the tantalising mystery of what the new project is (you will probably like it, but it may come as a bit of a shock . . .). Here's another: Oxford is beautiful. It's got this sense of peace and restfulness, like a person in a comfortable home who is well looked after. Contrary to all my expectations, it's not at all snobby. I've yet to meet anyone there who hasn't been very friendly. What is clear is that an awful lot of work goes into making and keeping it so nice. That's worth doing. It probably keeps a lot of people in work, and how much better to have a city that the citizen feels they are part of, that they jointly own with everyone else - somewhere worth preserving. Jules
and I snapped quite a lot of photos. Hers will be considerably better than mine.







I'd been up all night preparing a lecture on Cassini (which is why I had to rush back to Wales on Wednesday evening!) so I ended up going to bed in the youth hostel at 6.30 and sleeping for over 12 hours! I was up and springing (unusual for me) at eightish, and went to get breakfast - it was pricey and not gourmet food, but it would do. I thought the chap behind the counter was giving me a funny look as he doled out beans, tomatoes, sausage, bacon and hash brown onto my plate (the eggs looked like crumbled polystyrene) and when I went to sit down, under the annoyingly blaring loudspeaker, an itch I'd felt on my neck for a while became intolerable. I thought my hair must be caught in my collar. I moved a hand up to rip it out and scratch it. At that point a butterfly flew off my neck and around the room. I was so surprised I couldn't stop thinking about it. Where had that butterfly come from? Had I accidentally packed it in Wales or something? Sadly I doubt it survived. I'd rubbed off half its scales (I forget what sort it was - something very pretty like an admiral or a peacock) and none of the windows were open. For some reason it flew up to sit on the vent. Maybe I'm a spontaneous butterfly generator . . .

It was generally an odd sort of morning! I hopped on a train to London and went to the British Museum - a mind-blowing place that it will take me many visits to see all of, much less take in. By the time I'd walked around enough I was hungry again, and craving fruit, which is almost as unusual for me as getting up early. I bought a ridiculously overpriced pineapple and smoothie. While eating, I noticed a funny taste in my mouth, just behind my top front teeth. I put my thumb there. It came out covered in blood. It bled for some time and was quite sore for a couple of days. Maybe that was somehow connected to the butterfly; I can feel a really freaky fantasy novel coming on now. Or maybe I'm old enough to accept coincidence for what it is - even I used to be reluctant to do that. Or maybe I should be more careful how I eat. Maybe I also shouldn't have spent such a ridiculous amount of money in the British Museum shops, but their Rosetta Stone mugs really are gorgeous. They're thin bone china, comfortable to drink from, large enough, delicate, elegant, and the hieroglyphs, cuneiform and Greek letters are painted on so you can feel them, and your hand makes a singing sort of noise as you run your finger over the symbols. No, I'm not secretly their advertising agency, just an over-enthusiastic tea and coffee drinker - and very particular about my mugs. I have far too many, and they're all lovely - especially these!

Thus loaded, I then set off on a nice walk south to the Thames. Central London is surprisingly compact; it doesn't take too long to walk, for example, from Euston to the Houses of Parliament. Only problem is, don't rely on Google Maps to get you there. I did, and I ended up outside the Treasury, where Dean and the others had been campaigning three days previously.

I, a born Londoner, didn't realise the Houses of Parliament was the same building as Big Ben is. How embarrassing is that?

Well, I found it eventually, and there were signs up all over the place telling us that tresspassing was a prosecutable offence under the dear SOCPA law and that we must have passes if we wished to enter. There was nobody I could ask who wasn't behind some kind of chain, barrier, or wall, so eventually I had to sidle up and do that. The chap who was letting people in, or not, looked like he might or might not have been a policeman, and didn't seem to know what I was talking about when I asked how I could get a pass. But when I told him I was there to lobby Parliament in Committee Room 10 at 3:30 he let me straight in.

There was a long metal ramp to queue on, with an additional ramp to the left, railed off, into which a chap behind me ducked to hurry through ahead of those politely waiting. I was ashamed of him, and doubly so of the people in the queue around me who encouraged him to do it. He was back in about 30 seconds, announcing that the folks seeing us through had told him "No chance". Apparently he was late for something . . .

They'd told us to try and get to Parliament by 2:45; due to my muddling around like a moron I wasn't queueing until after three, but it wasn't half past yet when I got to the front. There was a pair of footprints drawn on the floor to stand in. I was so busy looking at them that they had to explain to me to look up so that a camera could take my picture. I was given this to wear around my neck. They didn't want any ID or anything. I was quite embarrassed to be carrying my coat, rucksack and a bag of British Museum stuff, and was dreading not being allowed through since the website is pretty specific about no luggage. (I'd been to Charing Cross but they'd have charged me £8, to which my reaction was bollocks to that!!) But they were fine. What was less fine was that they also say no sharps, and for some reason there was a pair of scissors in my rucksack. What they were doing there I have no idea! That was dreadfully embarrassing, especially as I had to remove all my underwear and hold people up while I got the wretched things out. They were very nice about it, though. They just gave me a nice laminated bit of paper to carry around, and I left the scissors in a pigeonhole. Then it was out, briefly, into the open air, turn right, and into the House of Commons.

It looked like a huge entrance to a castle: great wooden doors, a vast stone hall, stained glass windows in the far distance ahead. Near the front was a tourist stand full of maps and leaflets. I asked a guide where Committee Room 10 was. She told me in great detail. People were astonishingly polite, telling me please to go this way madam, but not smarmy or sarcastic. I felt quite out of my depth, quite awed by the grandeur, and at the same time determined and proud that this was where our country had been governed for centuries and also where I, and any other ordinary citizen, could come to make our voices heard. This was our House of Commons, a common heritage, and I immediately felt that everybody ought to see it.

Committee Room 10 was upstairs on the left, at the end of a long passage - whose chequerboard-like ancient flooring seemed to be in the process of being restored - and then up a spiral staircase at which point I was met by a TV set telling us what was going on in the chambers, and one second later by Michelle Brook. Michelle is a frighteningly bright Twitterer who's done two degrees and is a core player in the Science is Vital campaign. She was quite unfazed by the grandeur while I couldn't stop gawping around! Committee Room 10 was almost full which, I gather, is not a frequent occurrence. We settled on one place to sit, then saw more people to catch up with and moved, then decided to go and sit in what to me looked like a little raised area with a rail around it and quite comfy-looking chairs but Michelle said was called "the dock". I joked about how we must be the criminals, then froze, considering where we were and how you can't seem to say anything these days without incurring suspicion. Nobody heard, though. I did attract the interest of a chap in a suit in front of me when I reached up and touched the wall to see if it really was made of crimson velvet, or whether it was just clever wallpaper. It was velvet. The fellow asked me if I was looking for air conditioning. I said no, wondering what on earth kind of air conditioning this might be.

Like the House of Commons's debating room itself, this room's centre was its lowest point, all chairs pointed towards it, so there wasn't really much of a "stage" - Imran Khan took it, though, and he and Jenny Rohn made splendid speeches about why it made no sense - economic or otherwise - to cut funding for science. But something was niggling me: what were they doing making speeches to us, the people, the lobbyists, who'd come to say this to the politicians? I'd somehow assumed that the politicians would be there, and that we'd somehow know who they were. For all I knew the room could have been full of MPs without my knowing, though; I'm not a telly watcher and would probably not recognise most of them. We were joined by Julian Huppert, who'd only just got back from Gaza, and by a fellow who was there to read out Vince Cable's reply to us, seeing as Vince Cable was at that moment busy making important announcements about tuition fees. His deputy said that he would do his best to be Vince Cable by pulling his glasses down his nose. What he said sounded fairly encouraging. Annoyingly, I can't remember any specifics - there was just too much going on.

I had further cause to be proud of our democracy - yes, we do still have one - when we were told that, if our MP was not present and had not replied to our letters, we could nip downstairs and sign a "green card" asking them to come to Committee Room 10. I did that, along with a stampede of others; I had to ask to borrow somebody's pen! My MP, Stephen Crabb, did not appear; nor has he yet replied to my letter - but that's no excuse not to do everything one can. I was there, I did my damnedest, and so should anyone who wants anything to change. I added to the numbers and I'm writing about it now.

Update: Brilliant post by Della on all the things the campaign has been doing, including a much more informed account of Tuesday than my own!

A few days later, Michelle, Della, Imran and others presented the petition to No. 10 Downing Street. As I write now, there are 36,159 signatures. 33,804 of these were in time to make it to No. 10.

That was Tuesday. On Wednesday morning and afternoon I attended the launch of ESERO, a project to encourage the use of space and astronomy as part of science, maths and technology teaching in schools.

I was very flattered to be asked along; I don't know how they heard about me - maybe just by finding this blog! They gave me a badge saying Galaxy Zoo; I chuckled to myself with some embarrassment that as I'm not an official paid member of the team, I was not permitted to describe myself as "from Galaxy Zoo" for my first formal lecture, at Intech Planetarium two years ago, and wondered what they'd say if they knew. (That is, I was requested not to, so as to avoid the hassle of them having to approve everything I said - fair enough.) It was a useful label, though. Quite a few people came up to me and asked "Galaxy Zoo? What's that?" But the teacher of one of the very enthusiastic schools who came along took one look at my badge and exclaimed, "Oh! Galaxy Zoo! I set that for homework all the time!"

The launch took place in the Institute of Physics, a modest little place within one of London's terraces. We were an interesting mix of people from various space related industries, museums, organisations, and I think five schools - eight or ten secondary school kids got to come along, some having travelled from the North of England to go. There was excellent coffee and I couldn't believe how friendly everybody was. When I stood around with a mug in my hand feeling gormless, people came up to ask me what I did. It was great to hear the buzz of space and astronomy talk all around me, to lap up the various ways it trickles into society and learning. It was both like coming home and setting out.

We then had a morning of talks, and a video from our British astronaut Tim Peakes - you can read more and see the video here. The talks were wonderfully frank and lively: space is an inspiring thing, it's what encourages people to go into science or technology, we should be teaching it - and this is what we're here to do. They were also pretty straightforward about Britain being a country of inventors and great science; it's good to hear that, when so many people around me seem to regard deriding Britain as the only respectable or politically thing to do, earning modesty points for themselves at the expense of a feeling of confidence, of progress, that you need in order to get anywhere . . . We then had a demonstration of some science experiments, such as making a comet nucleus (great mess and fun) with the same science teacher who set the zoo as homework and a couple of school pupils! All in all, it was a morning of smile generating. We got a free lunch too, and an exhibition of pupils' work.

I was emotional and gibbering. The kids were going on about spectroscopy and cosmic rays and enantiomers. They wanted to know this stuff because it was there, not to pass any exams. The teachers were showing them things for fun, for excitement, for the latest news. In other words, everything that had been forbidden to me in my PGCE, everything I was told was impossible because the kids "wouldn't understand it at their age" or that it was a waste of their revision time - it was going on. And they could do it. I felt as if something I had been the only one to believe had been proved right. Oh, if only those miserable, repressed, curriculum-driven teachers I'd worked under could have seen this!

The kids loved showing me their stuff, getting me to sniff beakers of different enantiomers (one smelled much sweeter than the other), and I told some of them freely about what my teaching year had been like. They were quite amused. Some sixth formers from one school showed me a machine they had to detect cosmic rays. I said that I thought cosmic rays were stopped by the atmosphere and they said no, there were some in the room right now. I thought - wasn't that neutrinos they were thinking of? But who was I to say I knew more than they did? I wasn't working on this stuff, unlike them.

I talked as much as I could to the teachers, and the friendly one offered me some work experience. She works in the north, but if I can get somewhere to stay I might well give it a shot! When I told her I had been thrown off my teaching course, she said, "Oh, try it again!" That day, believe me, I wanted to. But I was driven away too far from that, and am now on a different road - I'm doing too many other things. (For one thing there are so many adults who aren't getting all the opportunities that schoolchildren are to learn - yet adults are often so much more willing!) And yet, and yet - I do want to do more work in schools. I love the classroom, I love education, and I want to write about it . . . My head was buzzing!

My only disappointment was the question time. I put up my hand and got to ask the first one. I said that I'd been at the Science is Vital rally the previous day and that cuts of between 10 and 25% were expected in the science sector - would this affect projects such as ESERO and indeed British investment in the European Space Agency, and if so, what could we do about it? I fear this question rather threw them because they turned into uptight men in suits, waffling about how cuts needed to be made, but certainly not addressing any practical issues such as what we could do or what specific effects such cuts might have. Oh well. My question was asked. These fantastic kids (and doubtless many of their classmates who couldn't come) will not be too hasty in letting the next generation slide into scientific barbarity.

I picked up an awful lot of literature while I was there - now I must actually sit down and read it! To round off a perfect day, Sotira (who I'd also seen at the She is an Astronomer conference) and I found a delicious restaurant and indulged ourselves in coffee, profiteroles and chocolate fudge cake. Even though going home meant burying myself back in that Cassini lecture's Powerpoint presentation when all I wanted was to celebrate and sleep, you can imagine that after three days of different ways of bringing science to the people, things have never felt quite so . . . how can I describe it? . . . right.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Science is Vital!


I'm going to be missing a very special and important event tomorrow: a demonstration to tell our government that we need to keep up funding for science.

There are more reasons for this than "we want to go on with our jobs" and "we want to go on making cool discoveries". Science actually contributes to at least 30% of GDP, and if I recall correctly only takes up 1.8%. It was invention and innovation that sparked the Industrial Revolution, here in Britain. It was to scientists here in Britain that two out of three science-related Nobel Prizes were won this year. It's here that 8% of scientific papers are produced, from 1% of the population (I don't know if this means the world's population, or the percentage of working scientists worldwide, but it's a pretty nifty figure even so!). Science has given us nearly everything we've got in the modern world in health, technology, communications, transport, standards of living . . . not to mention serendipity, education, and joy. For me personally, it was science that gave me my life's work and almost all my friends and happiness.

It looks like it's going to be a huge event - they've been making hundreds of banners today, and are gathering distinguished speakers such as Simon Singh, and guess who else? Dean! Congratulations mate! I do wish I could be there. But next week is going to be ridiculous enough as it is. On Monday I'm off to Oxford to do something for the zoo which I'll blog about when I get the all-clear. On Tuesday, since I'll at least be in the right part of the country, I will be going to this, and have written to my MP to let him know:
On Wednesday I'm attending the launch of ESERO, which aims to use space research to boost teaching of science, technlogy, engineering and mathematics (now, please do not let this go to waste, government! . . .). As soon as that's finished I'm coming home, because I'm working again on Thursday, then heading off to do my second Tea with the Stars lecture on Cassini. Then on Friday I'm heading back to London again to go to TAM. And after that, it's the second Cardiff Skeptics talk with Ash Pryce (please coming along!), and staying in Cardiff that night, so I will arrive in work directly off the train. So you can imagine that I am in no mood whatsoever to spend this weekend travelling as well, even for science.

Indignation (expressed best in this article by Roger Highfield) and gloom and worry have, I'm glad to say, led to action. If you can attend either rally, please do so - it's up to us all. And please sign the petition!

Yes, it's accepted that cuts have to be made. Yes, others look extremely worrying too - take this hideous scenario of disabled people losing essential care. Should scientists stop whinging and accept that they're not above the rest of us?

Not if you realise how much science contributes. In earlier times of economic crisis, Finland and Korea actually increased their science budgets, and Germany and America are not cutting theirs now. The reason is that, as Sir Patrick puts it, "If we cut funds for science we'll be shooting ourselves in the foot." Science boosts the economy, alongside other things. Withdrawal of funds leads to people we've trained, and who we don't pay much, taking their talents abroad. Private companies and charities that invest their research here won't see the point in staying either. Recovery from that would take a long, long time.

I thoroughly recommend this open letter by Dr Evan Harris, this Guardian datablog which details some of the statistics, and the key messages page on Science is Vital. If you fancy something a little more heavy-going, try the Royal Society and its document "The Scientific Century". Or, if you understand government papers, try this one, co-authored by someone in the HM Treasury. (I confess - I'm struggling!)

And if by any chance an MP is reading this, please sign Julian Huppert's Early Day Motion to save science - and our future.

Thank you.


Monday, 4 October 2010

Tea with the Stars

A few weeks ago I blogged about two wonderful people here in Pembrokeshire, Steph who gave my charity a lot of equipment and Tony who offered me a free venue to hold a fundraising astronomy talk.

The fundraising astronomy talk has turned into nothing less than a fundraising astronomy lecture series, and we've named it Tea with the Stars. I'd like to invite anyone who lives nearby to pop along. I'm afraid we are charging - obviously, because it's to raise money for charity - but you get a free tea thrown in, and a telescope tour if the weather permits!

It's at Nant-y-Coy Mill, near the village of Treffgarne, which is on the road between Haverfordwest and Fishguard. If you're travelling north it's immediately after the especially wriggly bit of road around Treffgarne Gorge (by the way, the geology round there is fascinating!). The talks are on alternate Thursdays at 7.30 p.m. You can see Tony's PDF here, and their general events page here (Hayley might well be interested in the paranormal evenings, the last of which I understand continued until three o'clock in the morning!).

We launched on Thursday 30th September, so I can announce that I co-founded two lecture series within ten days of each other. My talk was about Galaxy Zoo. I thought, therefore, that I was prepared and it would only take a little while to adapt my old talk from Intech Planetarium. Wrong. I was up until 6am. That did not in any way aid me in concentrating at work. When I got home, I had time to go to bed for half an hour before heading off to Treffgarne - believe it or not, that actually did me huge good!

Now if you'll forgive me sounding like an advert for five minutes, Nant-y-Coy Mill, now run by the Pembrokeshire Tea folks, is an absolutely beautiful place. An ancient stone house with a water wheel behind it . . .


Up close:


Inside:



I was very flattered to see this, and apparently a lot of people asked about it:


(The piece of paper asks people not to touch the telescope and advertises a coming astronomy lecture series this autumn.)

Outside is even more gorgeous. Here's my least fuzzy dark photo of the woodland, and there are a few more on this page . . .


But there was no tme to appreciate all that on Thursday evening. It was getting dark and pouring with rain. I poked my head into the kitchen, failed to spot anyone, so went straight upstairs to the gallery. Tony heard me on the stairs. He'd arranged the gallery beautifully and had the projector all ready. It turned out the little remote thing you hold in your hand to make the slide change only works on Macs, and my laptop was constrained by very short wires, so we decided I'd simply sit with it at the back rather than stand at the front. Actually I preferred that!


Seven o'clock came. Tony got me a cup of ginger tea. It was very subtle, not at all like that choking powdery lemon and ginger herbal stuff in bright yellow boxes. Nobody arrived. The wind and rain lashed down and the blueness outside intensified. We stood at the door looking out, but realised getting wet wouldn't help. Seven fifteen. Nobody. Nothing. We wondered if we'd launched the whole thing too soon. We lamented not getting round to going on the radio or into the local rag yet. Tony'd been so busy - though he had found time to stick up a lot of posters. Tony asked me what I'd do if nobody came at all. I replied that I'd wait until eight and then go home in a bad mood. It sounded so straightforward, but it didn't stop me pacing around. By seven twenty-five we were ready to crawl into the dry stone walls. By seven twenty-nine I was ready to go home. At about seven twenty-nine-and-fifty-five seconds, a vanload of five people arrived!

We welcomed them in and brought them in for tea. It was one of their colleagues who had brought along various extended family. A few minutes later a sixth person arrived, a geologist who had driven twenty miles down from the Preselis. Tony and Michael got them tea and sold little cakes to those who'd eat them, and insisted that the lecture fee be given directly to me, not even reclaiming costs for the tea, bless them. The atmosphere was very friendly, as it so often is in Pembrokeshire, chatting away as if we all knew each other. (I got into some trouble when I spent a summer in Devon for forgetting that that isn't always the social setup.) I think they were quite disappointed to hear that the lecture wasn't going to be in that comfy room with the sofas, but upstairs. However, as soon as they reached the top of the stairs, the cries of "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaw!" began!


I knew we had to have stars and tea as our logo, plus some of my more colourful mugs, but it was my sister who thought of the Clangers. For anyone who doesn't know, they're an utterly adorable TV program about little creatures who live on a small planet out in space, and are able to take a musical boat out into space to catch things - here they are on Wiki, the BBC and as the world's cutest conspiracy theory. Actually they often point out useful scientific facts as well - when you're little, you don't immediately realise that "You don't see light unless it shines on something." Which makes a lot of things clear!

Perhaps I shouldn't have started the lecture by making Clanger noises, but I think people forgave me. I started by saying that as we were so few, rather than have a Q&A session they should interrupt me with questions whenever they wanted.

And off we went.


I focussed on the early doings of the Zoo - how it began because of Kevin having 900,000 objects to classify and how successful it was; the clockwise/anticlockwise results, the Voorwerp, the rings, the peas, the irregulars, and finally the red spirals/blue ellipticals result. It was a very beginner audience, who had no idea what a quasar or a spectrum was, or why some stars were blue and others red, so I hope I answered their questions properly and didn't go over their heads too much. I told them I'd be doing a lecture on exactly what a spectrum is (it'll be called "starcodes"); and I guess I can use the Black Holes lecture this November to talk about quasars. I used a saucer to demonstrate quasars and ring galaxies (the geologist very nicely lent me hers!).

Anyway I don't think it went too badly, because there was the occasional gasp of "It's so beautiful" during the lecture, and afterwards, "I'm overwhelmed!" They all said they'd come to the next one and tell other people about it. The attendance may have been tiny, but it did mean each one got plenty of attention.

Afterwards I carefully put away my things - not only my laptop and its bits and bobs, but also my work newsletters, leaflets, cards and so on. Then I realised I'd lost the bag I'd brought them in. I also couldn't find my two copies of the September edition of Astronomy Now, which I'd brought along to show off, I mean give people a chance for further reading (where's the spade?). I spent about half an hour looking for them. Tony, who had also seen that bag, helped me, and in the end gave me a spare and promised to arrest it if he saw it.

When I got home I found the plastic bag which had contained the work stuff in my laptop case, the magazines on the sofa and that I'd left my mouse behind instead. Well done Alice . . .

I went and picked it up on Saturday, showing my mum around the beautiful walk instead. When we arrived in the building, I found I needed ask no questions: Michael called from a little office behind the counter, "Hi Alice, I'm using your mouse!" I'd left it on the projector.

But at least I did not do what I did just before my first ever public lecture at Intech Planetarium, namely, walking into one of the instruments projecting the Hubble Deep Field onto the planetarium ceiling and knocking my glasses off in the process!

I'll be talking about Cassini on October 14th, black holes on November 11th, the Zoo again in the New Year, and spectra in February. Tony, meanwhile, will be talking about telescope design on October 28th, non-standard cosmology on November 25th, and astronomy and art in the New Year. We're keeping a few slots open for local astronomy buffs, and have already had an offer to do dark matter.

If you live in Pembrokeshire, I hope to see you there.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

They Protest!

OK, this is going to be a bit of a lazy link round-up, but I've been following two amusing but worrying stories over the weeks - those concerning our guests of honour at Cardiff Skeptics. One of these stories has just ended, and I wanted to put together an update.

First the one that isn't: the MMS saga, known on Twitter as #bleachgate. Although the hero of this saga is of course Rhys, I think the best place to start is Noodlemaz's in-depth investigation. It's pretty frightening. For more on the early episodes, check out LizDitz's link round-up (now we need a link round-up of link round-ups . . .).

To summarise, MMS, "miracle mineral solution", is basically bleach. People are sold it as a "cure" for anything from AIDS to Crohn's Disease, and are told that when they feel nausated that is the "toxins being released". Actually, when they feel nauseated it's because it's doing exactly what it does to everything else: oxidising it, which basically means destroying living tissue. Supporters who understand this much chemistry claim that it somehow magically selects pathogens in our bodies and leaves our own tissues alone. They also repeatedly claim that "THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE HAVE BEEN CURED WHY DON'T YOU LISTEN TO THEM YOU BIG PHARMA SCOURGES" (etc), though have not provided any links to such stories - and obviously not to scientific studies.

That's because there aren't any. This is how they go about things - again, credit to Noodlemaz for finding this:
Do you understand the power that a church has that hasn’t given up its power? Look at the Catholics. Their priests have been molesting women and children for centuries and the governments have not been able to stop it. If handled properly a church can protect us from vaccinations that we don’t want, from forced insurance, and from many things that a government might want to use to oppress us.
I will let you form your own opinion of the above.

Martin Robbins wrote this brilliant article about MMS - both the forum incident and the worldwide state, both of which attracted a lot of comment. Several folks from the Crohn's Forum came along to offer their defences, and the replies to them made highly amusing reading. On a larger scale . . . look what's happened as a result, again by Martin Robbins.

I feel terrible about Africa when I think about it. I know it has a lot of problems of its own - the stories of mass rape in Darfur and children being killed as witches - and yet I can't help but feel that if it wasn't pushed into treaties that kept it as a recipient of aid rather than a participant in trade, among so much more, incidents like these would be fewer. Countries themselves, drawn up by Europeans, have very little to do with the people that populate them, who think of themselves as members of their tribe rather than citizens of their countries. (If anybody thinks I'm patronising anyone by saying this, it's not unique - I give you as a more local example certain folks in Cornwall who would boast for half an hour at a time about their Cornish ancestry and surnames as a means of putting me in my place when I lived there. I haven't got a direct link to source my Africa/countries comment, but a close relative lived in Africa for many years, and I recommend this in which it's mentioned - though it's hardly the focus.) That also makes Africa the perfect haven for those who wish to market their untested products and ideas which would be promptly stopped in their own countries, from anti-condom propaganda to MMS.

Onto more cheerful subjects, look what Rhys Morgan has done! Not a bad thing to start off such a huge campaign before even reaching 16. You can also hear him on the radio (if I remember rightly, about 17 minutes in) here. He's got a link round-up too (see what I mean about link round-ups . . .). The BBC report that there's now an official safety warning in this country, too. Those MMS adverts which keep appearing on Wordpress sites whenever the product is mentioned - I wonder how long they will stay?

All this has seriously rattled Jim Humble himself. Or at least, someone posing as him - you never know. Check out these comments early on in Rhys's blog . . . it's really quite surreal. Note that the first thing he does is advise Rhys not to speak publicly any more.

There's no point trying to convince him or his fanatical supporters, though. The best thing, in my opinion, is to try and educate the consumers and regulators. It's always the hardest, most costly solution, I hear a few people cry, isn't it? To round up as many people as possible, which will take the most time and the most resources. You could say the same of a scientific trial. Yet it seems worth it to me a thousand times over. Because putting in lots of time, money, resources and people is going to have thousands more good effects than just encouraging people not to drink bleach. Because this is very tied up with some of mankind's greatest problems, and there are no quick fixes to those.

(Humankind if you prefer, but I write it meaning the same thing.)

That story might only be just beginning. But here's one that's ended, at least this part of one. Councillor John Dixon's #stupidscientology tweet has been deemed to be in a private capacity. That is, he is entitled to tweet an obviously personal rather than Cardiff Council representing opinion.

WalesOnline and the Guardian have also reported on the case, and the latter has a brief follow-up on the disagreement of the Ombudsman. (You can read the Ombudsman's report a little way down Jack of Kent's blogpost here.) I recommend the comments of the Guardian website. I couldn't resist inserting a cheeky idea - the one about how, if he was representing his constituents, he was probably doing so quite accurately. A couple of comments above mine is the remark that whether John Dixon was cleared or not is beside the point for the scientologists - their aim was to make councils worry and waste their time, and therefore to discourage freedom of speech, rather than to punish John Dixon particularly.

The story coincided neatly with a Panorama documentary on scientology. I didn't watch it, and understand that while it was revealing about some of the strangeness of the cult, it didn't go into its practice of harrassing its critics. Why We Protest has revealed a most interesting e-mail sent around to scientologists on how to handle criticism on websites. I don't suggest this represents scientologists as a whole, and you know what? I also don't think it's likely to be terribly effective. (The tired part of me wonders if any comment on any news-related website is ever effective.)

On a lighter note, the Daily Mash and Crispian Jago have thrown their oars in for a good laugh. But best of all is John's guest post on Jack of Kent, which goes into the Paul Chambers case and Rhys's campaigning too.

It looks like the Internet is shaping things up for quite a lot of coordinated fighting from both sides of all controversy. Well, I suppose that's better than nothing . . .