Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction


Is there life on Venus?

Today is the day after our big announcement. I’ve known about this result for over 2 years and it’s great to finally be able to talk about it!

So what have we found? To quote from my own post on twitter:

We found the gas phosphine in the upper atmosphere. There is no known way this can be produced by normal chemical processes by lightening, volcanoes or asteroid impact in Venus. Life can & does produce it on Earth. So we have found evidence for unusual chemistry or maybe life.

So it isn’t definitely life, but it is surely something odd and unexpected.

Yesterday itself was a bit of a media whirl and today is shaping up the same way. I’ll be trying to blog more than usual (ie. blogging at all given recent performance!).

You can see more of what’s happening on Sky at Night (on the BBC iPlayer and repeated at 7:30pm on Thursday I think) and I’m sure there’s coverage on your local media of choice, be that newspaper, TV, radio or internet.

More news, as they say, when it happens.

Now I have an interview to do for the BBC World Service…

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Science for Fiction 2014

Science for Fiction 2014

Are you a professionally published author?
Would your fiction benefit from learning more about current science and technology?
Then come to Science for Fiction 2014!

Science for Fiction will be held the Monday & Tuesday before LonCon3 at Imperial College, on 11th & 12th August 2014, starting 2pm on 11th and all day 12th August.

Subject matter will include theoretical physics, astrophysics, cosmology, genetics and much more. Presentations will be given by leading scientists and there will be plenty of time for discussion during and after the talks.

Science for Fiction costs £35, including lunch on 12th August.

If you want to come please email d.clements at imperial.ac.uk the following information:


Postal Address:

Email Address:

Major recent publications:

Areas of Interest (eg. astronomy, biology):

Dietary Restrictions:

Do you require financial support? (attach details)

Any further information:

Dr D.L. Clements
Blackett Laboratory
Prince Consort Road
London SW7 2AZ

Numbers are limited so apply soon!

Science for Fiction is supported by Imperial College London and the Science Fiction Foundation

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Infrared Astronomy: First Draft Done

So, the first draft for the Infrared Astronomy book is done!

Lots more still to do of course – today I went through and totted up about 15 figures and diagrams that still need to be done, but I also did one of them, so they hopefully won’t take too long. I also have esteemed colleagues, both from astrophysics and writing, reading the draft to provide comments on both the content and the writing.

The whole experience of writing non-fiction has been interestingly different to writing fiction. At some level I have lots of things to write about in non-fiction but have to find a story, while in fiction I have the story, and have to build other things around that. But it’s not that, and not just that.

The other odd thing I’ve found is that non-fiction writing seems to exercise different writing muscles to writing fiction, at least for me. At the same time as writing the book I’ve been working on fiction as well – nothing large, just some short stories – and I haven’t found that an hour or so of non-fiction writing before I come home interferes with an hour or so of writing fiction once I get there. The only difficulty is in having enough hours in the day!

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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


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

main image


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.


The Night with No Sky

There have been rumours rumbling around for the last few weeks, and it was something we were all worried would happen once Patrick Moore died, but the Daily Telegraph and The Guardian have now broken the story that the BBC is planning to cancel The Sky at Night in the New Year. An alternative would be to revamp the series, but  this would have to be handled very carefully. Revamps of long running science programmes, such as Time Team, can all too easily go disastrously wrong. The Sky at Night has a loyal following of about 250000 viewers and currently has such a tiny budget that the science content is king. Attempts to push to a larger audience and more flashy presentation will risk ruining that dynamic, which has been established over 50 years.

Other revamps of science shows by the BBC, for example of Horizon some years back (‘real science, real drama’ – argh!) or Material World on radio 4 more recently (with much loved, and very skilled, presenter Quentin thrown on the scrap heap) have not gone well, possibly because the arts dominated BBC really doesn’t understand an audience that wants content and cares less about flashy presentation or flashy presenters.

There is a petition at chamge.org to save the show, so please go there and sign it, but, more than keeping it on air, we need to make sure that its focus remains on content, on the science, and doesn’t get diverted to something that will just put off its highly loyal audience.

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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.

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Massive Martian Nuclear Reactor!

It’s only a conference paper, so it needs some more work and refereeing before the case is more secure, but I was pointed to this paper today which reports the possibility that a natural thorium-based nuclear reactor once functioned in the northern regions of Mars:

Evidence exists that a large natural nuclear reac- tor formed and operated on Mars in the northern Mare Acidalium region of Mars. However, unlike its terre- strial analogs this natural nuclear reactor was apparent- ly much larger, bred 233U off of thorium, and appar- ently underwent explosive disassembly, ejecting large amounts of radioactive material over Mars surface.

Natural fission reactors are known on Earth, in the Oklo region of Africa, but this is the first extraterrestrial one to be claimed, and the first based on thorium.

There are clearly science-fictional implications in this – Stephen Baxter used Oklo in his novel Origin – but this has other implications for me, since I’m giving a lecture on terrestrial planets tomorrow, including Mars.

I wonder if any of my students will ask me about this?

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Dear Chancellor: How you can be genuinely serious about research and the UK

On the Today programme on Radio 4 yesterday morning, George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, was very enthusiastic in his support of science. “Letting intellectual enquiry take us where it does, is very important and government need to support that,” is one of a variety of things he said, and he took the opportunity to announce extra funding for graphene research.

All of this is very welcome, but it’s merely a drop in the ocean of what is required to make the UK attractive to the ‘brightest and best’.

Two things, above all, have to be sorted out.


The UK, as discussed previously on this blog, funds research at a lower level than its economic competitors. Just to go over the figures again:


The overall fraction of GDP spent by the UK on R&D, at 1.77%, is lower than the government’s own target of 2.5%, and still lower than the 3% of the EU Lisbon Strategy. Meanwhile, the fraction of that funded directly by government is pitiful:


When you’re trying to attract the best and brightest, money talks. Why should a world leading researcher from, say, the US or Germany want to come to the UK when we spend less than 2/3 of the GDP on research that the country they’re coming from spends? It doesn’t give one much confidence that one’s research is going to be supported in the long term, does it?

I can point to explicit examples among my immediate colleagues where funding has led to departures from the UK. One close colleague, an X-ray astronomer, saw the writing on the wall before the current crisis, and left to become the director of a Max Planck Institute – the kind of post that attracts the best and brightest scientists from across the world. In the UK, he would have the contracting astronomy budget to look forward to, a budget only adequate to support ESA missions, and, for X-ray astronomy, not even that, since UK support for ESA’s current X-ray satellite, XMM-Newton, was cut a few years ago. Within ESA, there is no prospect for a new X-ray mission before the mid 2020s at the earliest. In Germany, however, there is sufficient money to support not only ESA missions, but also so-called bi-lateral missions with other countries. In the case of X-ray astronomy, the next mission in Germany is eROSITA, a joint German-Russian project to be launched next year.

The UK used to have enough money for bi-lateral space missions, which is how we got a role in the US-German-UK project ROSAT, which was a great success in the 1990s. There are no prospects for the UK to be involved in any similar project at any time in the foreseeable future, thanks to restrictions in funding.

So, Chancellor, if you want the UK to attract the best and brightest, you have to provide the funds to allow the best and brightest to do what they want to do, or they will go and do it elsewhere. This is not something that can be done with specific focussed initiatives, since those ‘best and brightest’ will be sitting atop a pyramid of others working with them. A small isolated elite, such as the two graphene pioneers in Manchester, are not enough. At some level, the graphene funding announced yesterday demonstrates this realisation, since money went not only to Manchester, where the original work was done, but also to Cambridge and Imperial for work on applications. That approach has to apply across the whole of science and engineering, and that requires more money, not more cuts.

And that funding has to be flexible and responsive if, as Osborne says, he wishes to let “intellectual enquiry take us where it does”. The 3 year lockouts on STFC grants are a block to innovation, as are similar, though less severe, practices at EPSRC, which led to protests about the ‘death of British science’ earlier this year.

Put your money where your mouth is George, and try to actually compete with our scientific competitors.


There is no guarantee that the ‘best and brightest’ are going to be British, of course. Funding might attract those from other countries, but if they can’t get visas to the UK, then they won’t come. The continuing immigration hysteria, whipped up by the likes of the Mail and Express, pandering to the crypto-fascists of UKIP, and the actual fascists of the BNP, has forced both this and the previous government to set the barriers to entering the UK ever higher. This doesn’t help attract anybody, and especially the ‘brightest and best’ who have lots of other choices open to them. It may well be that there are fewer restrictions for people at the top of their careers, but if they were put off the UK by earlier poor experiences at the hands of the UKBA or Home Office, then it’s too late to repair that damage with a few comforting phrases from the Chancellor.

But the problem goes deeper than that. A lab, pretty much, is only as good as its weakest link. You can have a Nobel winner leading it, but if those on the ground are poor at their jobs then the output will be poor. You thus need to attract the brightest and best at all levels – from graduate students upwards.

The availability of funding for non-UK graduate students is poor, at best, but is an issue better covered in a separate post, since there are in fact some helpful visa arrangements for them. The difficulties in hiring non-UK/EU postdocs, though, goes to the heart of the ‘best and brightest’ issue.

When you advertise a postdoc position you have to specify what skills, attributes and qualifications are required and which are beneficial but not required – this is what our HR department tell us. If you get at least one UK/EU candidate who ticks all of the required boxes, then, even if they are a demonstrably worse candidate than someone from outside the UK/EU, you have to hire them. To do otherwise risks the university’s ability to sponsor visas. This may sound good to those who want to make sure that British jobs are for British (or EU) people, but it makes a nonsense of wanting to build a research base of the best and brightest. Until this situation is fixed there is no way that the UK can be considered a welcoming place for incoming researchers.

So George, those are the problems. What are you going to do about them?

Numbers from Eurostat via the Guardian; figures for 2010 except where indicated.

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Planck’s Big Year

As one CMB satellite bows out, with the announcement of the final results form WMAP, the new year will see the rise of the next CMB experiment, Planck. You’ll still have to wait a bit longer for our results, though, since the big Planck cosmology conference (there have already been two Planck non-cosmology early results conferences) isn’t going to happen until early April. I’m part of the Planck team, so in theory I know something about what’s going on, but the rules and restrictions about what we can’t say to people outside the team are so strict (‘the first rule of Planck is you don’t talk about Planck’) that you won’t be hearing anything from me about anything until it’s public*.

Nevertheless, the anticipation is building. Jan Tauber, the Planck Project Scietist, has been picked as one of Nature’s Five to Watch in 2013, for example, and the BBC’s Jonathan Amos is keen to hear any rumour that might emerge, and has been pretty much since we launched.

Not that you’ll hear any of those here!

However, there is plenty of interesting stuff to do with the data that Planck has already been made public, and, fingers crossed, you might get to hear about some of that here before the big Planck Party in April.

* These policies are not universally supported. At a Planck meeting this year, for example, Rashid Sunyaev berated the Planck Science Team for establishing rules than meant we were getting scooped by ground based experiments like the SPT, while senior members of the Planck project have broken these rules without significant penalty. My own take on where such stringent rules will take science if this approach persists can be found here. It may be a work of fiction, but some of the Planck rules aren’t too far from my fictionalised satire.