Archive for the 'Astronomy' Category

18
Nov
13

The Science of Doctor Who – Light Entertainment

Leave it! - Just Walk Away

Leave it Coxey! – Just Walk Away.

Thursday night I watched The Science of Doctor Who on BBC2 with the (oh so trendy) Professor Brian Cox. As he frolicked around in an old fashioned lecture theatre I thought it must be one of those Reith Lectures and I paid keen attention.
They’d roped in a room full of TV celebrities which I thought odd. Inviting celebs to watch An Audience with Victoria Wood makes some kind of sense but The Science of Doctor Who portrayed itself as a serious lecture. Why should I give additional credence to a speaker merely because some soap actor is gawping at him?

I also wonder about the veracity of the science trotted out in this program. I’ve been into science since I was a kid. Planets, black holes and first contact were the stuff of my youth and I am always slightly peeved when programs such as these are made and I see that we do not seem to have moved on very much.

These programs rarely go deep enough! Two things in particular bugged me about Thursday’s program. While dripping out standard scientific dogma Professor Cox based his arguments on two claims but never backed them up with any discussion of the questions which necessarily arise.

Firstly, the idea that nothing can escape from a black hole because the escape velocity of a black hole exceeds the speed of light and nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. This is taken as gospel by legions of science groupies and I have argued in pubs about this before to no avail because once some famous figure, like Professor Cox, states this on TV everyone repeats it ad nauseam as if they too understand the principles on which it is based. Usually they are TALKING BOLLOCKS!

To explain: Matter has the property of attracting other matter to it and this is what we call gravity. A gravity well is the effect of gravity surrounding a body of matter. As gravity is a fairly weak force, the body has to be pretty massive before gravity is appreciable so we’re normally talking about planets, stars and whatnot. The escape velocity is the speed an object must travel to completely escape from the gravity influence of a body.

But why should one leave a planet or star at escape velocity? Why could one not simply decamp at a legal and pedestrian 4 miles per hour? Ask anyone who pretends to understand this and they will not be able to explain it but state emphatically that it’s impossible. They are TALKING BOLLOCKS! The Wikipedai entry on escape velocity clearly states “A rocket moving out of a gravity well does not actually need to attain escape velocity to do so, but could achieve the same result at any speed with a suitable mode of propulsion and sufficient fuel. Escape velocity only applies to ballistic trajectories”. By this they mean that if you lob something you must lob it at sufficient speed.

Given this then the fact that the escape velocity of a black hole is greater than the speed of light need not dictate that it is impossible for an anything to ever leave a black hole and if this is true then the notion that a black hole is a “singularity” evaporates.

Secondly Professor Cox considered how light bouncing between two mirrors appears to travel at one speed between the mirrors yet if the two mirrors are set in motion the light moving between them must travel further (as it also travels along with the mirrors) and therefore the speed must be greater yet this would not be apparent to an observer travelling with the mirrors. This was portrayed as proof of Einsteinian relativity weirdness.

Well, duh! Obviously the light would travel further. Good old Newtonian physics would see to that as the light traveling between the mirrors would move in conjunction with the mirrors themselves (assuming that the whole palaver was set in motion together).

“But the speed of light can’t change, it’s always constant” whine the relativity pedants – Maybe so but the scenario portrayed in Thursday night’s program contributed nothing to this argument for or against. In the TV program the strangeness of Einsteinium physics did come through and it obviously beguiled the room full of media luvies but if one replaces the idea of light bouncing between mirrors with ping pong balls bouncing between bats then one can see that the movement of the balls is obviously different according to the motion of the observer which is what a lot of this speed of light weirdness is about.

I suspect that there is more to all this than meets the eye. An interesting thought experiment is to start from the idea that both mirrors or bats are stationary. Then one has to ask: stationary in relation to what? And this is where the whole relativity thing kicks in because there can be no concept of stationary without reference to another object.

But this is never discussed! Nothing said by Professor Cox on Thursday night explained why light must have a fixed speed. Since the scientific world, including, Professor Cox, bang on about this so much and since they base much of their arguments upon these two principles I suspect that there is truth in their arguments but I suggest that they underestimate the intellect and interest of the viewing public.

I recall a Reith Lecture fairly recently where they went deep and explained the background behind Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. It was fantastic! I understood and it opened doors for me to understand further. Sadly, programs such as these are rare and as my memory dims my ability to explain the mechanisms fades and I find myself shouting over the jukebox “Something to do with particles….” before putting my pint to my face.

The Science of Doctor Who was a let down. It set itself up to be a serious lecture but in the end it was no more than a bit of fluff to milk the celebrity of Professor Cox and make a lot of actors feel they understand science without doing any thinking.

st malo beach

St Malo Beach

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13
Aug
13

Star Chasers & Doggers – The Perseids 2013

Devils Dyke

Devils Dyke

Sunset last night found me rummaging through cupboards retrieving sleeping bags and heavy jackets. An old wool hat, some gloves. It might be cold up at Devils Dyke and I wanted to be prepared. The Perseid Meteor Shower had come around again.
The forecast was clear skies and, as I watched the sun set, the clouds scarpered and the stars came out. I stuffed my jacket into a bag and a toy noise machine fell to the ground. A joke Christmas present. Press a button to get special effects noises. A thunderstorm, a crow. Absent mindedly I put it in my pocket and picked up the camp bed.
A final glance out the window revealed the moon just setting. Excellent! The seeing would be good. Hot chocolate into a thermos and camera packed I staggered downstairs overloaded with gear while a grating witches cackle emerged  from my pocket. Outside there was a bit of wind, good thing I’d prepared. Car loaded, I set off.

This year Talking Bollocks had correspondence at both major seeing points in Brighton; Devils Dyke and Ditchling Beacon. Our Ditchling correspondent texted to say he was making tea and would soon set off. Around 11pm, up at the Dyke, cars were still arriving and I parked up. A party atmosphere. Laughing and drinking. Standing and staring. As I walked I almost stumbled over prone figures lying on the ground. Camp beds, sleeping bags. People were making a night of it. A cool wind was blowing from the south west but the sky was clear and it wasn’t long before I saw a shooting star streak across the sky accompanied by whoops and cheers from the darkness.

Devils Dyke

Devils Dyke

The real trick is to know which part of the sky to look at. I had no idea. I wandered around the back of the little wood where the wind drops away and found three guys with cameras and tripods. They pointed out Perseus with a laser pointer. Oddly this actually worked, the laser being visible for a good way as it bounces off water vapour in the air. These guys explained that they travel around the UK taking pictures at night. Sometimes storm chasing, sometimes meteor chasing. As, I stood, face raised to the heavens, their conversation floated over. F stops and ISO ratings. Tea and biscuits. Techy and camaraderie. The sky seemed full of aircraft but, as they predicted, this soon died down.

A text came in from our Ditchling correspondent who reported that it was like a festival up there and the shooting stars were plentiful. After an hour or so I decided to bed down. Returning to the car I collected my gear and walked through to the back of the wood and set up my bed. I stuffed my sleeping bag into the bivvy bad and took a final swig of hot chocolate then lay back and watched the skies. A meteor zipped across the sky every few minutes. Some thin and feint and some bright and wide. I drifted off to sleep.

About 2pm I awoke. I was uncomfortable. Could be worse. The Fastnet yacht race has started and they should be round Land’s End and into the Irish Sea by now. Could be choppy though they should get a good view of the sky. As I tossed and turned blood curdling screams emerged from my pocket. I was cold and something was digging into my back. The zip in the sleeping bag had broken and bits of me kept emerging into the cold air and the slope of the bed didn’t help.

About 3:00 I packed up and returned to the west side of the Dike to find the place almost deserted. All but one party of revelers had gone home. Before leaving I stood about a bit and took some more pictures. Now and then a car would arrive., drive around the car park and depart. Astronomers or doggers? It wasn’t possible to know.

Then foot to the floor and down the winding lanes back into the empty streets of Brighton to arrive at the sea front about 4:00am.
Not a bad place to live. Rural and urban. Thoughtful and rowdy. Nerdy and obscene. Brighton & Hove!

Star House

Star House

13
Dec
12

Patrick Moore – When TV mattered

Patrick Moore

Patrick Moore

The astronomer Patrick Moore died on the 9th December. Like many people my age, as a kid, I often argued with my parents about why I should be allowed stay up late to watch The Sky At Night. Pre satellite TV and pre Internet it was one of my few tenuous links to the world of astronomy and I would relish the grainy and blurred photos while Mr. Moore explained their import. His style was to the point. He studied the stars but he was not starry eyed and doubted that we would come across alien life any time soon. His appeal lay in his intelligence and enthusiasm. He was passionate about astronomy but he didn’t patronise his audience. He assumed that we were as intelligent and well informed as himself and we were forced to pay attention to keep up. They don’t make TV like that anymore.

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Star House

Star House

15
Aug
12

Perseid The Damp Squid

Damp Squid

Damp Squid

Saturday evening me and a friend drove up onto Dartmoor to watch the Perseid Meteor shower. We parked in a small car park by the Warren House Inn and looked around for a place to camp. After getting  wet feet trapsing through marshland we found a bit of flat ground high up away from the road. Returning to the car we picked up the gear and retraced our steps, this time avoiding the gullies. After the tent and camp bed were erected we headed for the pub.

Dartmoor

Dartmoor

The Warren House is a friendly old fashioned place which serves lamb hot pot, lasagne and the like. The sort of grub you want if you have been wandering around in English weather which was of course misty and overcast. We expected to be heading straight for bed once the pub closed.

After a few pints the landlady told us that the fire in the hearth had been brought from another pub which had burnt down and was never allowed to go out. Slowly the place emptied of customers and about 11:30 we emerged into the darkness. As it was so dark I took the opertunity to fall into a ditch by the side of the road and after that we switched on our head torches. We hunted around and eventually found our camp and cracked open another couple of beers. By now the sky had begun to clear and we could see some stars.

We stood about and looked and looked and looked. I saw one but it was pretty obvious that, like the rest of the tourists to England this year, the Perseid’s had mostly stayed away. The cloud began to draw in but we retained a small patch of clear sky. As I lay on my camp bed in my sleeping bag I gazed up and saw two more tiddlers. Another Perseid damp squib.

Star House

Star House

10
Aug
12

Summer in Brighton

palmeira square

Palmeira Square

Drove home last night. Sunshine, windows open, hammering down the A23. Summer has finally come. Approaching Britghon I noticed the  mist over the hills and as I drove down The Drive I discovered that the city was immersed in dense fog. Though this gave a chill to the air I knew that just a few feet above my head it was still summer and it was beautiful to watch the fog rolling along Kingsway. As the sun set the fog drifted out to sea and the horizon seemed to undulated.

Today the fog has gone and the flowers are out in Palmeira Square. On the down side it looks like Harry’s English Restaurant has closed but I guess this is a lesson to us all. You don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone and I should have frequented the place more often.

Still, the sky is clear which bodes well for the seeing since tomorrow night is the start of the Perseid Meteor shower.

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Harry's Restaurant has closed

Harry’s Restaurant

Adelaide Crescent

Adelaide Crescent

Adelaide Crescent

Adelaide Crescent

brighton bulldozer

brighton bulldozer

17
Aug
10

Camelot

30
Jun
10

Heritage – Another excuse for commercialism

Stone Henge

Stone Henge

So the government has decided not to go ahead with a contribution to the Stone Henge visitors centre. Obviously there will be howls of anguish but really, who cares? Stone Henge is there and it has a road running past it. If you want to see Stone Henge drive past it. I think there’s a car park there too so you can stop if you want.

But that’s not good enough for some people. They say we need a visitors centre. A visitors centre? Consider what that means. Consider all the other visitors centres you’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. A visitors centre is a themed set of shops and restaurants. It’s a mini shopping mall. If you want to visit a themed shopping mall go to Heathrow Airport but don’t insist that a prehistoric wonder requires an outlet of Star Bucks – it doesn’t.

I imagine that the driving force behind these centres are the retailers who will have captive markets. I notice that the plan is to place the visitors centre around a mile away from the stones and to eradicate the current road running past the stones. Probably there will be some bloody buses or a light railway to take people from the stones tot he centre. The obvious aim is to stop anyone seeing the stones without paying to get into the centre and be lured into the shops selling Stone Henge calenders and druid T-Shirts.

We don’t need this damn commercialism! We don’t need a branch of McDonalds at every tourist attraction. A Human being can live for about three days without water and weeks without food. The aboriginal people of Australia roamed the land and survived on what they found there. The prehistoric people who built Stone Henge had no access to sandwiches in polythene bags or coffee with warning labels or toilets with the constant sound of hand dryers.
You don’t need to buy refreshment. If you want refreshment go to the local mall. If you want to see a prehistoric wonder, get your cagoule on and take a walk over to the stones. Take a thermos flask with you and have a cup of tea while you’re there.

But please let’s not concrete over yet more of the countryside in the name of heritage.




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