Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


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Pythagoras’ Trousers and Herschel

Several of us were interviewed by Chris North at a recent Herschel meeting about what we thought were the highlights of the mission. This was broadcast on Radio Cardiff on 19th May as part of the Pythagoras’ Trousers programme. I don’t know where they got that title but at least they know how to use apostrophes.

You can now hear this section of the programme here.

At the end of the segment, starting at about 17 minutes in, is an attempt to explain the Herschel mission in ordinary plain language, using a script by Jon Brumfitt & Leo Metcalfe read by me. I’m glad that’s all clear now.

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Is Gravity Science Fiction?

I just wrote the following response to an article and blog comment on lablit.com suggesting that the film Gravity should not be classified as Science Fiction. I thought I should add the comment here as well.

What’s the beef with science fiction?

There are several issues with Gravity that to my mind make it more Science Fiction than Science Fact. The convenient locations of the various places on orbit is already noted, but there are other operational issues in Gravity which elide the facts to make it more convenient (and survivable) for the characters. These include the amount of time taken to put on (and take off) a space suit, and the amount of time it takes to repressurise an airlock.

But above and beyond all these, is the key science fictional idea that drives the film: Kessler syndrome, the hypthesised debris cascade that would result as space debris hits other satellites causing even more debris, and eventually wiping out everything in low Earth orbit (LEO). Even ignoring the fact that the data linking satellites, TDRS, that are used to link communications across LEO are in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) and thus immune from the effect – something the film ignores to add narrative tension – the Kessler syndrome is not something that has been probed to be real. It’s plausible, but it is not a scientific fact, confirmed (thank goodness) by experiment.

To my mind that makes Gravity science fiction more than anything else. Hard SF, for sure, since they try as hard as possible to get everything else as right as they can given the story they want to tell, but SF nevertheless.

I’d contrast this with another film that is borderline SF: Deep Impact. This posits the possibility of a large asteroid impact threatening all life on Earth. Most people would call this film SF, but, unlike Gravity and the Kessler Syndrome, we know that such giant impacts have happened in the past – one wiped out the dinosaurs.

Would you classify that as SF, like most people, or as something different?

I think what lablit.com does is great, and have a couple of things published there, but the site is oddly allergic to science fiction, trying to distance itself from something they have, to my mind, more in common with than differences.


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Press Release: Four new galaxy clusters take researchers further back in time

I have a press release out today! Below is the text from the release from Imperial. So far it seems to have been picked up by:

The Daily Mail

The Financial Express

The Economic Times

Phys.Org

scientias.nl (in Dutch)

and there may be more to come.

Not sure what to think about the Daily Mail entry – it’s not my favourite paper, but, as a colleague said, ‘if your piece is next to “Lauren Goodger shows off the results of her new boob job in unflattering sheer dress at charity event” and “What happened to natural beauty, Kim? Kardashian overdoes her look with thick, heavy make-up arriving at Khloe’s house” you’re certainly reaching new audiences.’

News: science

Imperial College London

Four new galaxy clusters take researchers further back in time

by Gail Wilson12 February 2014

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Four unknown galaxy clusters each potentially containing thousands of individual galaxies have been discovered some 10 billion light years from Earth.

An international team of astronomers, led by Imperial College London, used a new way of combining data from the two European Space Agency satellites, Planck and Herschel, to identify more distant galaxy clusters than has previously been possible. The researchers believe up to 2000 further clusters could be identified using this technique, helping to build a more detailed timeline of how clusters are formed.

– Dr Dave Clements

Study author

Galaxy clusters are the most massive objects in the universe, containing hundreds to thousands of galaxies, bound together by gravity. While astronomers have identified many nearby clusters, they need to go further back in time to understand how these structures are formed. This means finding clusters at greater distances from the Earth.

The light from the most distant of the four new clusters identified by the team has taken over 10 billion years to reach us. This means the researchers are seeing what the cluster looked like when the universe was just three billion years old.

Lead researcher Dr David Clements, from the Department of Physics at Imperial College London, explains: “Although we’re able to see individual galaxies that go further back in time, up to now, the most distant clusters found by astronomers date back to when the universe was 4.5 billion years old. This equates to around nine billion light years away. Our new approach has already found a cluster in existence much earlier than that, and we believe it has the potential to go even further.”

The clusters can be identified at such distances because they contain galaxies in which huge amounts of dust and gas are being formed into stars. This process emits light that can be picked up by the satellite surveys.

Galaxies are divided into two types: elliptical galaxies that have many stars, but little dust and gas; and spiral galaxies like our own, the Milky Way, which contain lots of dust and gas. Most clusters in the universe today are dominated by giant elliptical galaxies in which the dust and gas has already been formed into stars.

“What we believe we are seeing in these distant clusters are giant elliptical galaxies in the process of being formed,” says Dr Clements.

Observations were recorded by the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) instrument as part of Herschel Multi-tiered Extragalactic Survey (HerMES). Seb Oliver, Head of the HerMES survey said: “The fantastic thing about Herschel-SPIRE is that we are able to scan very large areas of the sky with sufficient sensitivity and image sharpness that we can find these rare and exotic things.  This result from Dr. Clements is exactly the kind of thing we were hoping to find with the HerMES survey”

The researchers are among the first to combine data from two satellites that ended their operations last year: the Planck satellite, which scanned the whole sky, and the Herschel satellite, which surveyed certain sections in greater detail. The researchers used Planck data to find sources of far-infrared emission in areas covered by the Herschel satellite, then cross referenced with Herschel data to look at these sources more closely. Of sixteen sources identified by the researchers, most were confirmed as single, nearby galaxies that were already known. However, four were shown by Herschel to be formed of multiple, fainter sources, indicating previously unknown galaxy clusters.

The team then used additional existing data and new observations to estimate the distance of these clusters from Earth and to determine which of the galaxies within them were forming stars. The researchers are now looking to identify more galaxy clusters using this technique, with the aim of looking further back in time to the earliest stage of cluster formation.

The research involved scientists from the UK, Spain, USA, Canada, Italy and South Africa. It is published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.


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Planck is dead: Long Live Planck!

The Planck spacecraft was shut down, sent termination software to prevent any accidental restart, and has been left to drift in an Earth trailing graveyard orbit for the foreseeable, and very long term, future.

The spacecraft is dead, but the data lives on.

And so both of the missions I’ve been working on since 2001, and been at least peripherally involved with since the mid 1990s, are now over. Rather sad really.


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Book Deal!

I’ve signed the contract now, so I guess this is as official as it gets so…

I have a book deal!

I’m writing a popular book on infrared astronomy for the Taylor and Francis imprint CRC Press – these are the people who publish, among other things, the tome known in science labs across the world as the Rubber Bible.

Working title for the book is ‘Infrared Astronomy: Seeing the Heat’ and it will present a run down of the achievements of infrared astronomy across the whole of astrophysics. Since working in the infrared has now become part of the bread and butter of astrophysicists, this means that the book is also going to be a summary, to some extent, of the current state of play in much of astronomy, form planets to cosmology.

All more easily said than done, since I now have to write it.

Those of you paying attention will have seen that a second page to this blog, titled Infrared Astronomy Book, popped up not so long ago. Various things associated with the book will end up there – additional material, links to images, that kind of thing. I may also say something about the writing process on these pages as I bring my way through it.

I’ve already found that there are some interesting similarities and differences in writing fiction and non-fiction. The IR Astronomy book, for example, is already well outlined – this was part of the proposal process – while my approach with fiction is that as long as I know where to start and how to finish, I don’t find a detailed structure that useful (quite the opposite in fact).

I’ve finished the first draft of the chapter in infrared detectors, and am now writing the first astronomical chapter to be written (though not the first astronomical chapter in the book), which is about the lives of normal stars.

I’m also writing this part of the book at an observatory, since I’m working at the Submillimetre Array in Hawaii for the next week.


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I’ve won a Clarke Award!

Or, to be more precise, the Herschel-SPIRE team has won the 2013 Sir Arthur C Clarke award for Academic Study and Research. This is one of the Clarke awards funded by the Arthur C Clarke Foundation, and not to be confused with the Clarke Awards* for science fiction, funded by other means.

More details can be found on the BIS pages and on the SPIRE team pages.

Hmm, does this mean I can put ‘Sir Arthur C Clarke award winner’ on any fiction books I publish?

*Interestingly, the top hit on google that you get for Clarke Award seems to be a domain squatting operation. Tom Hunter should be told.


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Royal Society Show

Some people seem to think that academics don’t do anything in their long ‘vacations’. I think I’d quite like to go back to term term, as I’ve pretty much been non-stop ever since term ended at the end of June.

The main reason for this, and for my absence from these pages, is that I was running the Planck stand at the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. This is a week long extravaganza, where scientists from about 23 selected teams show off their science to the public using exhibition stands set up in the Royal Society’s building, just off the Mall. I’ve been part of shows before, most recently last year’s Herschel exhibit, but this was the first time I had run a stand. The experience of being in charge is very different!

Things that were new to me, at least with respect to running the stand, was sorting the budget, ordering piles of stuff from many different people, getting artwork sorted from our excellent graphic designer and much more. The most stressful, from my point of view, was ensuring that everything we needed was going to be there on time. Mostly this worked, and, at the end of the Sunday before the exhibition opened, we had a stand.

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I think we had one of the nicest stands, though I would say that. We had the centrepiece, which is a 1/4 scale model of Planck, we had videos running above, a Planck version of Chromoscope running around the side of the stand to the right, some examples of flight hardware in a display box, two touchscreens running appropriate games/demos, one of which can be found here, and even a telephone where you can dial up the sound of the Big Bang!

We also had lots of freebies – pens, fridge magnets, bookmarks, leaflets, and even papercraft models of Planck to cut out and build. All of those even arrived on time. However, what was meant to be the piece de resistance did not arrive on time. I ordered small inflatable beachballs with the Planck CMB map printed on them. I was promised delivery the Friday before the exhibition opened and they did not turn up. They also didn’t turn up on the Monday or Tuesday. By the Wednesday, my first full day away from the stand since it started, I was on to the suppliers playing – well not exactly Dr Angry, but certainly Dr Disappointed.

It turned out that the company was disappointed too, since our universes, and several other customers’ orders, were unaccountably being held by HMRC for no readily apparent reason.

They didn’t turn up until the Monday after the show had ended, and there are some production problems with them as well as the delivery issue. Still, some novel uses have already been found for them…

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This is what happens when graduate students get to play with too many universes!

Despite the lack of beach balls, the show went very well. This is what was left of the stand late into the packing up process, as we awaited the van to collect the model.

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According to the Royal Society we had over 11000 people through the front door, and a further 30000 who looked at our web material during the show, and you can still look at the stuff on the web.

The visitors were very varied, from 5 year olds to Fellows of the Royal Society and everything in between, so you have to think on your feet when answering questions. It was a lot of fun, but exhausting to be in charge. I’ll happily stand aside so that someone else can have that pleasure next time.