Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


I am a Mancunicon Guest of Honour!

This has been a possibility that has been bubbling under the surface since a bit before Christmas, but is something that can now be revealed…

I will be one of the Guests of Honour at the UK National SF Convention next year (2016). This is called Mancunicon and, unsurprisingly with a name like that, it is being held in Manchester.

Things are just coming together for the Con, as it only won the bidding session at this year’s Eastercon yesterday, but they already have a twitter account @Mancunicon and web pages etc. will be following shortly – the con team were too busy taking memberships in person at this year’s Eastercon (Dysprosium, at the Park Inn just outside Heathrow) to get the web presence up and running.

The rest of the guests are great as well: Ian MacDonald, Aliette de Bodard and Sarah Pinborough (that’s @iannmcdonald @SarahPinborough and @aliettedb if you’re on twitter).

Easter is early next year so there is only 50 weeks to prepare, but I already have some interesting schemes in mind for science and other aspects of programming, since that is one of the things I do. And the great thing about being a GoH is that I can suggest things and don’t have to do too much myself :-)

I’ll try to keep things updated here as they develop, and especially if one special super secret project comes off.

See you in Manchester!

ETA: Some terminological clarifications

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South By High Redshift – the first and last, thanks to SXSW

I’ve spent the last couple of days at an excellent astronomy conference in Austin Texas, called South by High Redshift, or SXHZ. I’m learning a lot and, hopefully, my talk in half an hour will be a useful contribution.

But this is going to be the last conference with this title, because the South By Southwest – SXSW – festival doesn’t like the astronomers using something that looks a bit like their name. Yes – essentially they’re complaining about wordplay!

This meeting is an academic conference. Nobody is making money, or intending to, and the wordplay actually helps spread knowledge of the SXSW festival – I didn’t know much about it until I heard about SXHZ. I also didn’t know that SXSW includes some science events and has hosted a NASA stand for the last few years.

The festival’s attitude to the SXHZ name, though, means that I’m now going to associate SXSW with idiotic, funless pettiness and money-grabbing paranoia. I suspect it also means that SXSW will find it harder to get local astronomers to contribute to its science events. I know I’d be disinclined to help people who had fired lawyers’ nastygrams at my colleagues.

So well played SXSW. You’ve besmirched your reputation to no useful result, and damaged the goodwill you’ve earned with both the Austin and international astronomical community.


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Press Release: More than 200 ancient galaxy clusters discovered

Text from the press release Imperial put out about a paper I’m involved with from the Planck and Herschel missions.

Link for this press release is here, there is a companion press release from ESA is here, and the paper itself is here.

Astronomers have spotted more than 200 rapidly star-forming clusters of galaxies that could shed light on galaxy evolution.

These clusters are the most massive objects in the universe, containing hundreds or thousands of galaxies. Early estimates of the new clusters predict they could be forming the equivalent of 7,000 Sun-sized stars per year. By studying their properties, astronomers hope to learn more about the formation of galaxies and galaxy clusters in the early universe.

A montage of some of the clusters we have found

Light takes time to travel, meaning that when we observe objects far away in the universe we are actually seeing them as they looked in the past. More detailed analysis is needed on the new clusters to estimate their ages accurately, but they could be up to 10 billion years old, dating from just 3 billion years after the universe first formed.

We had hints of these kinds of objects before, but this study found a huge number of these things.
– Dr David Clements
The star-forming galaxies in the clusters are thought to be early stages of what we see today as giant elliptical galaxies, containing many stars but little dust and gas. Dust and gas are used to form stars, meaning elliptical galaxies are highly evolved systems. Finding so many early galaxy clusters will allow researchers to study the evolution of these galaxies in greater depth.

The clusters were discovered by the Planck Collaboration, a large group of researchers from around the world. “We had hints of these kinds of objects before, and had found a few examples in previous studies, but this study found a huge number of these things,” said Dr David Clements from the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, who is part of the team. “That means we can now get a much clearer understanding of what’s going on.”

The next steps will be to look in more detail at the clusters in order to define their ages and investigate the shape and environment of their star-forming galaxies. Looking at shapes can uncover galaxy collisions, where smaller galaxies combine into larger ones.

It is the collision of ever larger galaxies that are thought to form the giant elliptical galaxies. In fact, our own galaxy, the Milky Way, will collide with the Andromeda galaxy in approximately four billion years, forming a new giant elliptical galaxy.

More detailed observations could also reveal the make-up of the clusters, and whether rapidly star-forming individual galaxies are surrounded by less productive galaxies, giving insight into the evolution of the system.

As some of the most massive systems in the universe today, galaxy clusters provide clues about the distribution of mass in the early universe. The Big Bang did not distribute matter evenly, causing very tiny fluctuations in the density of different areas of the universe. Small centres of mass attracted more matter through the action of gravity, eventually forming stars and galaxies. As huge centres of mass, galaxy clusters might reveal the limits of density differences in the early universe.

Galaxy clusters are rich in dark matter. Dark matter cannot be observed directly, but makes up most of the matter in the universe, exerting a large force of gravity. It’s this gravity that drives the accumulation of visible matter into galaxies and clusters.

To find the clusters, the team combined data from the European Space Agency’s Planck and Herschel missions, which are both now finished. The Planck satellite could scan large areas of the sky, allowing the team to select candidates, which they then looked at more closely with the Herschel space observatory to confirm the presence of galaxy clusters.

Professor Hervé Dole from the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in France, who led the analysis, said: “Although the data were taken a few years ago, when Planck and Herschel were operating, we’re only at the start of this project, with many exciting targets being followed up using other observatories. This is a fantastic effort, and more impressive results are expected in the coming months.”

‘Planck intermediate results. XXVII. High-redshift infrared galaxy overdensity candidates and lensed sources discovered by Planck and confirmed by Herschel-SPIRE’ by the Planck Collaboration is published in Astronomy and Astrophysics.


Yes, science produces too many PhDs


I agree with Peter on this, and have done for some time. See appendix 3, which I wrote, here:


Originally posted on In the Dark:

I came across a blog post this morning entitled Does Science Produce Too Many PhDs? I think the answer is an obvious “yes” but I’ll use the question as an excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing yearly career researchers in science are looking at the issue from the wrong end. I think the crisis is essentially caused by the overproduction of PhDs in this field. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider the following.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a…

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The history of planet and exoplanet discoveries

A rather wonderful animated gif by Hugh Osborn showing the history of planet and exoplanet detections over 265 years. Hat tip to @astrokatie for linking to it on twitter.

Planet Discoveries

One thing that clearly drops out of the early years of this gif (and by early I mean pre-1990) is the difference between Pluto and all the other planets. Just one more reason why Pluto is much better classified as a minor planet.

Apologies to USians out there who want to keep Pluto as it’s the only planet in the Solar System discovered by a USian. The great achievements since then on exoplanets, including Kepler which over the last few years has found hundreds of exoplanets, really does make up for the loss of Pluto.

ETA: Colours relate to different detection methods: dark blue = Solar System; light blue = radial velocity; maroon = direct imaging; orange = microlensing; green = transit (the method used by Kepler, for example).

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Boskone Schedule

As some of you may know I’m the science guest at this year’s Boskone – my first guest spot at any convention.

The programme just got finalised (pending last minute changes) and this is where you’ll be able to find me:

Losing True Dark

Friday 16:00 – 16:50, Harbor III (Westin)

With the growth of modern cities, the star-swept sky is vanishing, hidden behind the ever-spreading glare of nighttime light pollution. Has the absence of true dark skewed the impact of the nighttime skies? If so, how might this alter the human imagination? What does it mean for our outlook on the supernatural, our observation of outer space, or even our basic desire to discover what lies beyond our own planet? Has this changed our perception of humanity’s place within The Universe?

David L. Clements (M), James Cambias, James Patrick Kelly, Donna L. Young, Guy Consolmagno

Tall Technical Tales

Friday 18:00 – 18:50, Harbor I (Westin)

What stories do scientists tell when they’ve inhaled too much ethanol? Could they involve exploding particle accelerators or “oops” moments with virulent viruses? Perhaps they’ll explain why you should never operate a centrifuge while under the influence. Find out when our panel of loose-lipped lab rats tells true stories about their work. Oh, and bring your own nerdy narratives for our open mic.

David L. Clements, Guy Consolmagno, Jordin T. Kare, Joan Slonczewski

Opening Ceremony: Meet the Guests

Friday 20:00 – 20:25, Galleria-Stage (Westin)

Welcome to Boskone, New England’s longest-running convention for science fiction, fantasy, and horror! Whether you are attending for the first time or the fifty-second, we invite you to join us in the Galleria to meet this year’s guests.

Boskone 52 Reception

Friday 20:30 – 22:00, Galleria-Stage (Westin)

Connoisseurs and philistines alike: welcome to the Boskone Art Show! Join us in the Galleria for an upscale social mixer. Meet our program participants while enjoying refreshments, stimulating conversation, and exceptional art that is a feast for the eyes. Experience the music and the festivities as Boskone celebrates another year of science fiction, fantasy, and horror in Boston.

Reading: David L. Clements

Saturday 11:00 – 11:25, Griffin (Westin)

David L. Clements

Spaceships, Battles, and Zero Gravity

Saturday 13:00 – 13:50, Burroughs (Westin)

Don’t you love those incredible space war battles? All of those big explosions, etc.? But how realistic are they? For instance, how come the participants all seem to share the same sense of up and down in space? Scientists and authors team up to critique some blockbuster scenes from page and screen. Let’s determine the physical requirements, risks, and realities of what would happen when two spaceships duel between planets or raging armadas battle it out beyond the stars.

Allen M. Steele, David L. Clements, Janet Catherine Johnston, Frank Wu

Daring Outer Space Rescues

Saturday 15:00 – 15:50, Marina 3 (Westin)

Spaceflight has long been one of humanity’s dreams. We have sent people into space for decades to build space stations and to conduct research. Now with Space X and possible plans for a moon base, what happens when a spacecraft breaks down in outer space, or some system has a catastrophic failure? Real-world solutions are possible, but what would it take to pull off a rescue mission? What happens if we can’t pull it off?

Jeff Hecht, David L. Clements, Allen M. Steele, Donna L. Young

Autographing: David L. Clements, Debra Doyle, James Macdonald, Allen Steele

Saturday 17:00 – 17:50, Galleria-Autographing (Westin)

Kaffeeklatsch: David Clements

Sunday 10:00 – 10:50, Galleria-Kaffeeklatsch 1 (Westin)

David L. Clements

The Herschel Project

Sunday 12:00 – 12:50, Burroughs (Westin)

The Herschel Space Observatory (launched 2009) was one of the European Space Agency’s flagship missions. The spacecraft, which featured a 3.5m diameter far-infrared telescope, was sent to the second Lagrange point. Over its almost 4-year lifespan, it observed both objects in our solar system and targets in the most distant galaxies known. David L Clements began working on Herschel in 2001, and has been a leading member of some of the largest projects using this spacecraft. He will discuss the science and technology of the mission, and present results on topics ranging from star formation to the origin of galaxies.

David L. Clements

The Year in Physics and Astronomy

Sunday 13:00 – 13:50, Marina 4 (Westin)

An annual roundup of the latest research and discoveries in physics and astronomy. Our experts will talk about what’s new and interesting, cutting-edge and speculative: the Higgs boson, solar and extrasolar planets, dark energy, and much more besides.

Jeff Hecht, Guy Consolmagno, Mark L. Olson, David L. Clements


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