Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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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.


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…


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.


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.

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Planck: Release Details

No – not the content of the release, that’s still embargoed, but how you can watch the press conference yourself…

This is what I’ve been told are the arrangements for Planck Day, Thursday 21 March:

There is an ESA Press Conference in Paris from 9am UK time, with talks from the ESA Director General and George Efstathiou. There will be a simultaneous press event at the RAS here in London which will stream the Paris talks, and will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A featuring Andrew Jaffe (Imperial), Mark Ashdown (Cambrdige), Richard Battye (Manchester), Anthony Challinor (Cambridge), Jo Dunkley (Oxford), Steve Gratton (Cambridge), Paul Shellard (Cambridge) and Locke Spencer (Cardiff).

There will also be an afternoon session in Paris with more technical talks.

Both morning and afternoon Paris talks will all be streamed at http://www.esa.int.

Papers will be up on the ESA site at about noon Thursday, and on astro-ph Friday morning.


It’s Official: Planck Cosmology on 21st March 2013

The official notice has gone up, and I am now free to reveal that the first set of Planck Cosmological results will be announced on 21st March.

The word from the official CNES web pages is:

Presentation of the first cosmologic results of Planck mission as well as its first all-sky images of the Cosmic Microwave Background

Launched in 2009, Planck studies the Cosmic Microwave Background – the relic radiation from the Big Bang – to allow cosmologists to zero-in on theories that describe the Universe’s birth and evolution. The first all-sky images of the Cosmic Microwave Background will be presented at the press conference held in Paris ESA HQ on March 21st, 2013.

As well as the press conference in Paris, we’re hoping that we can arrange some events in the UK as well, which will be convenient for me as I’m lecturing that morning and so will be unable to escape to Paris.

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EBEX launches

My colleague Andrew Jaffe brings the happy news that the EBEX balloon has successfully launched from Antarctica. EBEX is a next-generation CMB project, aimed to go beyond what has been achieved in space by Planck and WMAP by using much larger detector arrays to study polarisation in the microwave background. In the same way that the BOOMERANG and MAXIMA balloons set the scene for WMAP and Planck, EBEX and other dedicated polarisation experiments will set the scene for the next generation of CMB satellites currently being proposed, like COrE.

A balloon allows you to get above much of the atmosphere, so you can get some of the benefits of being in space, but you don’t have quite the same limitations on payload, power and proven reliability (and thus lack of up-to-date-ness) of the technologies used. EBEX can thus use arrays of thousands of detectors while Planck works with just a small number of individual pixels. The downside is that balloon flights, even long duration ones that circle Antarctica, last only a week or so, and the upper atmosphere is still not as good as space.

Ballooning is an odd scientific activity, with many of the hazards of a space mission, but with budgets similar to small ground-based projects. Things are not quite as pyrotechnic either. The launch of EBEX, shown here, is smooth and gentle compared to any space launch.

You can follow the EBEX flight, as the balloon orbits Antarctica, here.

Good luck to them!

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A new redshift record!

A new record for most distant object* seems to have been claimed for the gamma ray burst GRB_090423. The burst, a brief flash of gamma rays and associated afterglow, was first detected by the SWIFT satellite, and then ground based telescopes followed up these observations with imaging and, once the optical/near-IR counterpart was found, spectroscopy. In this case the object proved to be very red with essentially no emission in the optical. This is a clear indicator for high redshift. The surprise was just how high – a redshift of 8.1, corresponding to just 630 Million years after the Big Bang.

The burst will have now faded so the likelihood of seeing anything more from this particular spot on the sky is probably low, but these observations push back still further the point at which we know condensed objects to have formed. They’ll also have something to say about the reionization of the universe which should have been happening around the time this gamma ray burst went off.

All rather exciting!

As a further footnote I am impressed that the wikipedia page for GRB_090423 is already up containing clear links to all the GCN circulars on the object. An impressive example of rapid online publication.

* This means most distant collapsed object as opposed to the cosmic microwave background which is more distant, coming just about 100000 years after the Big Bang, but isn’t a collapsed object like a star or black hole since it comes from the opacity of the entire universe.