Saturday, 25 July 2009

Happy Second Birthday Galaxy Zoo!

Tomorrow it will be two years ago that I logged onto Galaxy Zoo as usual - and found that the long-awaited forum was up and running! Within 10 minutes or so, I got a message asking me to moderate. It was the beginning of the best thing I have ever done.

We missed the 2nd birthday of Galaxy Zoo itself. Liz had asked me if we were celebrating that, but I think we all just forgot. So we made up for it by having a lovely birthday bash today. This Object of the Day was put together by the efforts of several, with the running commentary of several more! Thank you so much to Jules, Caro, Half65, and perhaps most of all EdV who made my favourite part, this video.

(Brian May is not only enough of a genius to write a song about space travel and relativity, but also might well be largely to blame for me getting back into astronomy after leaving university! My "zooified" lyrics to the song are here.)

It was Aida's idea to include the Newbies thread - if you're new to the zoo, please click on all the rainbow text (in the thread - not here). Most of it is links to threads I hope you'll find helpful.

I am already really moved to see so many great birthday messages from people at the zoo. May we continue for many, many more years!

Friday, 24 July 2009

Shell, grass, articles, and rootless solutions

I recently applied for a journalism job which required submitting a 400-word environmental article. I didn't get the job, so I'm going to put the article here instead, as I discovered something very sad - and well worth finding out - whilst researching it.

Can science put down roots in an old problem?

“We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them,” Albert Einstein is reported to have said many years ago. Like relativity, some statements remain up to date whatever the year.

Upon Peter Voser’s rise to CEO of Shell last week, Amnesty International released a 141-page report on the many-decades-old problem of oil spills and other pollution in the Niger Delta. The report suggests no particular remediation method, but points to successful technology in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and Shell’s repeated failure to meet governmental deadlines to cease gas flaring. Shell refuted Amnesty’s prior accusations of human rights violations. Can science help?

J. N. Okereke and two other scientists from Nigeria’s Federal University of Technology studied the ecological effects of oil spillage. Grasses, they found, invariably die altogether, while some fungi thrive, as do different species of bacteria from non-contaminated areas. They believe this is due to oxygen depletion from petroleum’s presence and from increased carbon in the soil. The soils were also more acidic after oil spills.

In 2002, a hopeful article appeared on at least four websites, claiming that indigenous plants were the solution. A non-government organisation (NGO), The Centre for Environmental Resources and Sustainable Ecosystems (CERASE), was piloting a new project in the community of Ogbogu.
Sheets of kenaf (Hibiscus Cannabinus), also used in paper production, act as absorbers of the oils. The perennial vetiver (Vetivera Zizanioides) removes contamination in the long term; it is a grass, but apparently very tolerant. Local people were encouraged to “make nurseries” for these two plants. Uzo Egbuche, CERASE’s director, stated that “this highly sustainable rural development approach will create multiple avenues for poverty alleviation.”

“We aim to promote the use of local resources and provide technical and funding support to individuals and groups,” says Shell’s website now. But there has been no mention of CERASE since early 2002. Later that year, Chijioke Evoh wrote in NigeriaWorld that NGOs suffer from corruption and a lack of transparency even while they appear to do more than governments whose influence is weakening.

Sadly, perhaps Amnesty International has the right approach; no science or creativity will solve this old problem until it can break free from the type of thinking and acting that produced it in the first place. Mothers may have to cook contaminated meals on burning oil leaks for some time yet.

Here is a picture from Amnesty International:

It was very difficult to find any scientific literature on the Niger Delta or its many environmental problems. If ever mentioned, it's usually in passing, along the lines of "renewable energy's not realistic, but in the meantime we really ought to build oil pipelines carefully - the Niger Delta ones keep exploding and killing people". Top Google hits include a moving article from the Independent almost a year ago, and a military report on the area's problems whose tone I thought fell somewhere between disapproving and dismissive.

The indigenous plants article which cropped up in at least 4 places - probably several more - was this one. It's true; I wasn't able to find any more references to the idea or the organisation after 2002. This is the article critical of NGOs. Prestigious online scientific journal places, such as ScienceDirect and arXiv, returned "no results" in their searches again and again. The Okereke et al paper is just under 3 pages long and quite basic (not to suggest they didn't work very hard, which they seem to have done). In short, infamous as this environmental problem is, it doesn't seem to be receiving much scientific attention.

So why on Earth did I choose to write about it for a job application? On show-what-I-can-do grounds, it may have been a mistake. But I never have been one for trendiness and worrying about "what's hot"; and I suspect there's a larger niche for "what's-also-important-but-merely-lacks-glamour" in journalism than a lot of editors realise. If you picked up some magazines you hadn't read before, you'd think each one was reporting half a dozen world-changing revolutions. Pick it up again a few times, and the cumulative effect becomes desperate, unfulfilling, and lame. (I recently had a conversation with a scientist about how ludicrously their discoveries get reported by some magazines - each one has to be blown out of proportion and then hastily forgotten.) I'd sooner go for something of real substance.

But deeper than that, the environment isn't about trendiness or new things that are "hot". The world is big and old. Large problems have filtered into large areas and won't be fixed-quick with some amazing new solution which you can forget about next week. To see people make an attempt to fix a problem, and then struggle to survive by making silly promises about how planting grasses will earn the locals money and education without explaining how (is there a market for them? who will buy them? where does the money come from?), is either another of these quick-fixes - or a sad story of a well-meant effort that was then choked off before it could get anywhere. To solve a problem, you have to study it first, and then - sorry, there's no way out of it - work hard. And stay where you are for a long time, running like Alice and the Red Queen all the while.

To download the Amnesty report, click here. It's over 100 pages but very informative.

The Niger Delta crisis is, at present, on the Amnesty website's front page. This is its page with more information, and how you can help.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Time down Mines and Moons

It seems to be my week for starting posts with Moon pictures, so I might as well start this one by showing you a great picture Infinity took of the Moon on July 7th . . .

Credit: Infinity, one of the forum moderators

. . . a very similar version of which just made APOD today. You can see some of Jupiter's moons if you look closely, but I still think Infinity's is prettier.

Credit: APOD.

For many years I thought the Moon was a sixth of the mass of the Earth - because its gravity is a sixth of the Earth's. Then I learnt (on the forum, of course, from Waveney) that it's much smaller than that: only 0.0123 Earth! I asked why its gravity wasn't much smaller - evidently it's because of the proximity to the centre of mass, and there's some scary formula stating how much gravity increases as you get nearer a planet. If anyone can find it on the forum, they earn several smileys - I have done all kinds of fancy searching to no avail so far.

But it didn't make complete sense to me. What if you're in the very core of a planet, or any body in space? The mass is all around you then - there'd be nothing pulling on you. As Russell Stannard explains beautifully in "Black Holes and Uncle Albert", the natural path of anything is in a straight line through space. But "through" doesn't mean like going through water, chopping it and brushing it aside; it means following the path of space, going along with it. And sometimes space is curved.

Basically, it means the natural path of any object is where gravity takes you. If you're sitting in your chair, you're not in your natural state. Gravity is pulling on you but you can't go where it wants. Even if you find the deepest mine you can, and lie down.

So I asked in a thread which I'm now rather proud of: What does gravity do as you get down a mine? - Or more specifically, because I knew that gravity would tail off as you get closer to the body's centre: What does time do down a mine?

Gravity causes all sorts of strange effects, one of the strangest of which slowing down time. It's not that you can't run so fast under the pressure of strong gravity. It's not something you notice. It's time itself which is slowed down. Your thinking, atoms' movement - the most wonderful proof I heard of this observation was during a lecture at Astrofest 2008, a story of two pulsars orbiting each other, and their beats slowing down when they were closest together. Stannard's earlier book, "The Time and Space of Uncle Albert", deals with the strange effects of special relativity, or "the physics of the very fast": namely, time slowing down at high speeds. Or, rather, at high acceleration or decceleration and changing motion. It's often discussed in terms of the twin paradox, though he doesn't name it or talk about it in particular. The books present it in an original way, designed for children to be able to grasp. (I pretty much did, aged 10-ish!)

The essence of my question was: On the surface of a very heavy planet, time runs slower on the ground (surface) than it would at the top of a skyscraper or in an aeroplane. (In fact, this is true of all planets, and all bodies with gravity; but it's more noticeable when the gravity is very strong.) But what about underneath the surface? What happens nearer the core of the planet?

Edd told me off the thread that time would speed up again down the mine, as there would be less net gravity. This is what I suspected. Hah! Meanwhile, the thread went in other directions.

Alromario asked what things would look like from his 6th floor window, if time was speeded up or slowed down enough for us to notice. Would cars in the street appear to go faster? No - because on the 6th floor, his time is speeded up and the cars' time is slowed down; they would appear to go slower. (If they looked up, they'd think he was scuttling around very fast up there!)

The same happens if you accelerate very fast. In "Black Holes and Uncle Albert", the heroine Gedanken is driving a rocket. She's sitting in the middle of it. At each ends are lights, designed to give out a flash every second. Once she starts accelerating, the photons at the front get to her more frequently than every second - they have less far to go. Since the speed of light from her point of view can't change, this means that their time is affected: their time has speeded up, and the light flashes more than once a second! The opposite, of course, is true at the other end of the rocket. Each flash of light needs more time to catch up with her. Each one has further to go. So their time seems to be slowed down.

Gravity and acceleration can fake each other. Gravity bends space, and light is affected near a heavy planet, as in the cartoon I drew above. It finds it easier to get to the planet than away from it. If we lived on a black hole, I daresay Alromario's skyscraper would look a lot higher: this is why, and this is what causes gravitational lensing:

But as Weezerd points out in the topic, light does get away from the planet if you shine it upwards! And then another interesting effect comes in . . .

Gedanken noticed in her rocket that the light at the front had turned blue, the light at the back red. This is because of the frequency of the light, and it's why we see colours. Blue spiral galaxiess are blue because they're giving off the energetic light of star formation. Their light-waves have a higher frequency than the less energetic red light from elliptical galaxies.

Hang on, we ask. How in the Universe does gravity affect frequency?

Well, it doesn't work like redshift. That's when space is stretching out, pulling bits of the Universe away from each other. Light getting from one star in one galaxy to another star in another galaxy finds that the racing track it's on has expanded. The space it goes through is expanding - like a birthday message on a balloon being blown up. And therefore the wavelength of light gets longer, and the colour of the light turns red.

Graham D writes a long explanation which is worth a read - and I found it particularly interesting that the photon is not really emitted until it is absorbed by something (in the language of the Clangers, "you can't see light until it shines on something"). The gravitational well distorts the space around it. You can think of it as the photon fighting to get away from the planet, but finding it a lot easier to get to it.

If you dropped a light into a black hole, the photons would have a real struggle getting out to you. They would inch their way out, and you'd see the light as it was longer and longer ago, rather than where it is at each progressive "now". It would appear to slow down as it got further in. And the wavelength of light would be stretched out and turn red. Gedanken is confused by this effect in the story, and just for once, she doesn't make the sensible decision . . .

Next question! If you shone a white or yellow light up a mine from the inside of the very heavy planet, what colour would it look? I suspect slightly blue.

You're never too old or young to learn about one of the most beautiful ideas ever thought up, relativity.

In fact, you're never too old or young to learn anything at Galaxy Zoo.

Monday, 13 July 2009

From a Moon question back to the BCA again

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, 1969. Credit: APOD.

Last week a friend asked me why, in the old Apollo pictures of the Moon landings, we can't see any stars. I didn't actually know offhand - not being around during 1969, it's something I've taken for granted rather than gazed at in awe for long lengths of time. (A shame, considering the excitement I could have gone through! I think I would have liked the 1970's, too . . .) So I hadn't really noticed. Nevertheless, I hazarded a guess that the Sun's light was too strong in comparison. If the Moon had an atmosphere, I explained, the light would get scattered and give the Moon a sky. Anyway, I said, I'll get back to you.

Fluffyporcupine from the forum took about 5 seconds to find the precise answer: not what I'd said, but nearly. It's because the photographic film didn't pick them up. The stars were too faint in comparison to the Sun. The astronauts would probably have been able to see them, but their eyes are stronger. Any picture you see with stars in it has had plenty of exposure time. For instance, even though stars are much clearer in real dark skies than under the streetlights we know, pictures such as Wally Pacholka's must have taken several minutes or even hours to take for this effect.

The Milky Way over Mauna Kea. Credit: APOD.

Fluffy had found the question here. That's a site I'll be having a nose around as soon as I can - but I've recently started using Ask an Astronomer and was looking to see if they had something about it that I could point my friend to. They didn't; but they did have a very sad story about some of the nonsense - and horrible things - people have spouted about the Moon landings. Even accusing NASA of deliberately killing astronauts.

"Shocking and awful . . . This is a very upsetting accusation," writes Britt Scharringhausen, one of the Ask an Astronomer volunteers (not someone who ever worked on the Apollo missions, from the looks of things!). But, and please correct me if I'm wrong, I haven't heard anything about NASA suing these people for lying about them.

That hit me all of a sudden while I was reading another excellent Jack of Kent post about the BCA and the Simon Singh case. He makes many very sensible points, but these two, particularly, hit me:

I still know little about - say - osteopathy, reiki or acupuncture, for the simple reason that practitioners of the latter do not seem to threaten to sue people when criticised to the same level.
In essence, Simon Singh's article was critical of the evidence base for certain treatments for children's ailments.

As such, it is my fundamental view that - absent malice - such statements should be published without fear of legal action.

Indeed, my view is that the law should be there to protect such statements not hinder them.

Debate about public health - and public safety and police powers - should be as free as possible.
Simon Singh wrote that the BCA "happily promotes these bogus treatments". By that he meant that they happily promote treatments which have not been proven to work, and they claim that these treatments do work. To me, this is dishonesty. Apparently, to the law, this is benevolent ignorance and they're quite entitled to carry on doing it!

By their own reasoning, the BCA should have been sued for making a silly statement. Seriously, which has the potential to cause more harm? An accusation of promoting bogus treatment? Or a claim that chiropractic will heal toddlers of eczema - which brings along the parents with a patient too young to make his own decisions, who is highly unlikely to be cured and has a chance of being hurt? (I'm sure it's not common for people to get hurt in chiropractic, but it does happen - admittedly this link does rule out toddlers.)

A few weeks ago I was watching the TV - in someone else's house, I might add - and three people were dissing medicine and the MMR vaccine. No mention whatsoever was made of the MMR research being very thoroughly proven wrong. It was all about emotion and suspicion, and people clearly making decisions - and encouraging their audience to make their decisions - by "weighing up" such feelings. "I took my son to have the vaccine, I was really uncomfortable about it, I knew it was wrong, and the light went out of his eyes a few weeks later," this woman said. No, she wasn't Jenny McCarthy, even though she was copying her words. Her son was autistic, and I can well imagine the anger and helplessness and sorrow she would have gone through (it's worrying enough when my cats are ill). Such emotions make you want to blame something. But symptoms of autism develop just around the age when the MMR vaccine is due. "A mother is right to be worried, mothers have to make their own choice about what's best for their own children," was the conclusion. This wasn't an in-depth program which would have to be answered with "the other point of view", either - it was one of those ten-minute snippets (otherwise I would have made some excuse to leave the room).

The major problems with it was that it mentioned no actual facts, let alone statistics; there was no weighing up of what's more important - the whole population's health or that of a single child, or a proven-negligible risk versus a nasty one; and that they were trying to be nice and balanced by giving all the coverage to the scaremongers. Oh, and there were a few scary shots of needles and so on, but doctors, evidently, were faraway wizards who didn't need a voice . . .

But imagine if the medical profession had been the BCA. The implications being made against doctors every few days by normal TV are terrible, if you think about it. Catch the medical profession suing over people airing their worry, though.

One could also say that by the BCA's reasoning, palaeontologists and biologists and other scientists should be able to sue the Creation Museum for making terrible claims about their lives' work. (For me the most ridiculous thing was the idea of war and famine stemming from belief in evolution. Evolution is far more about co-operation and altruism than about war and famine. I might turn the question back on them and ask why the Old Testament God seemed so keen on genocide?) But obviously, unlike the BCA, scientists have better things to do than that!

As an aside, Jack of Kent raised a smile (mine) when he mentioned the police and public safety, too. Since the Ian Tomlinson case, I have learnt that now the police won't allow people to photograph them. I can see their point that the photographs might be used for terrorists to "get him". But that seems rather a low risk compared to people getting injured in demonstrations because of an overzealous police force, and no evidence being allowed to be collected about it.

At least the police haven't sued Yasmin Alibhai-Brown for writing that article, either.

I don't believe that the BCA really care what the public thinks; it looks to me as if they just want the money. They declined the offer to respond to the claim, for a start. And as it's often been pointed out, on more than one blog, the suing has got them a lot of negative publicity. Hopefully at a lot more cost than any compensation they might win . . .

Anaxagoras was imprisoned for hypothesising that the Sun was not a deity but a ball of iron. Well, Marcus Chown says iron and the Open University says stone, but in any case, astronomers believed that the Sun was made of iron until well into the 20th century. Gallileo is now a hero because of his treatment by the Catholic Church. And all the guilt and self-criticism the congregation is asked to repeat again and again in church services is clearly an important part of the worship of Jesus. I wonder if his influence would be so great today if they hadn't cruelly murdered him?

Good scientists want only to do good. But what they do is difficult, and especially with a population fed far more media hype than good education, they're often easy to attack. People make a lot of claims and counter-claims these days, and some are rather hurtful. But the astronomers and astronauts who are hurt by the hateful accusations of faking the Moon landings and killing three men, the doctors who are accused of giving children autism - they are wise and respected for not suing idiots when they shout their whims. They're like parents who know when they need not bother arguing with a child. And they know better than to make these people martyrs.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Let there be peas in Space, and let it begin at the Zoo

I'm rather proud to announce that a detailed History of the Peas is up on the Galaxy Zoo Blog - I hope everybody, especially the pea-pickers, like it. I did a lot of research for that, including checking topics 1 to 157 on the forum to make sure that the possible pea posted by Nightblizzard in topic 158 really was the first!

Thank you very much Kevin and Carie for reading and posting it so speedily. And, of course, to the Peascorps - or Pea Experts - or Pea Pickers - or Pea Maniacs - or whatever name these peaple prefer at any given moment for an incredible amount of hard work!

Update: 2 in 24 hours! Thank you very much to PulseProject for inviting me to write this. We haven't talked much about asteroids publicly yet - there are always more topics at Galaxy Zoo . . . if we ever ran out, the zooites would find something, no problem. In fact, that's what we do anyway.

For a really fabulous piece on asteroids at Galaxy Zoo, check out this Object of the Day by FermatsBrother, who professes to be 359 years old.

Sunday, 5 July 2009

PulseProject, Peas, and The Pub where it All Began

Some weeks ago I had an interesting new assignment handed over to me: to find some people to be interviewed for a documentary about Galaxy Zoo. The makers of the documentary are Pulse-Project, who create podcasts and videos of scientific interviews and lectures. I started exchanging e-mails with Colin Murphy, and learnt how much he wants to make lots of good science freely available to the public, and of his determination to keep Pulse-Project going after the idea initially lost funding.

Colin first met Chris a few years ago. "My imagination was fired up," he told me and others a few weeks ago. (I accused Chris of having that effect. Chris declined to reply.) When Pulse-Project did manage to secure some support and interest again, Galaxy Zoo looked like a good way to get that excitement that comes with astronomy across.

Chris had talked Colin through a few of the specific projects on which the Zoo is currently working, especially the Peas and the Irregulars; other suggestions for the documentary to focus on were the Voorwerp, the gravitational lenses, and the asteroids. I sent Colin some notes about each of these: how these came about, how many people were involved, etc. I didn't initially understand why we had to focus on just one thing. Couldn't we do two or more? That would be more representative of the zoo.

Soon afterwards, I got a phone call from Colin. My unexpected piece of work experience was getting very exciting indeed. Listening to him, I felt myself understanding more and more every minute. So many little things I hadn't thought about - for example, if we focussed on both the irregulars and the asteroids, we'd have to go through two different lengthy processes of investigating each and going to interview separate people and so on. The Voorwerp was out: that would involve going to the Netherlands. In any case, I think Colin had made up his mind well before talking to me to focus on the peas.

I have never actually blogged specifically about the peas here, so I'll provide a quick explanation. They're a new class of galaxy discovered at the zoo. Not in one "eureka" moment, but after several months of collecting, never quite sure what we were looking for - and then another year of analysis by the scientists. They are small, round objects of a rich emerald-green, most but not all of which appear to be quasars, and all of which have a high OIII peak in the spectrum, meaning that two electrons have been knocked off the oxygen atoms.

A "pea" from SDSS:

A typical "Pea" spectrum. Note the very narrow, high peaks under specific ions such as OIII. The y axis (up and down) means light intensity, so these ions are emitting high quantities of light in a few particular wavelengths. I explain more about how this works here.

As soon as we thought we'd nailed the reason for their colour - the OIII - another two bunches of objects turned up with similar spectra: nearby starforming galaxies and further-away dark red quasars. In fact, next thing we knew, it seemed that nearly every "energetic" galaxy with any free gas in it had a pea-type spectrum.

When Kevin and Carie Cardamone, a PhD student at Yale, started work on the peas in July last year, the results continued to confound! Peas seem to be neither typical starburst galaxies nor typical active galactic nuclei. What we have found is that they are compact but of low density - so, I presume, of small total mass, yet forming stars at a rate 40 times higher than our own Milky Way Galaxy. But they're part many animals' diet at the zoo nowadays: from Rick's talk at Bristol (on the Markarian peas, a subset) to two recent blog posts by Carie on the paper's submission and process of writing, and more on the peas by Stephen. I'm also preparing the zooite history of the peas, and will post a link to the Galaxy Zoo Blog when that's done.

This may all sound a little nitty-gritty, but actually it's a bomb of a story to tell the public! What started off as amateurs playing around led to amateurs getting very interested, nitpicky, and hardworking - asking questions, arguing over definitions, learning SQL searches - until the scientists came along and found out even more. It's also an example of what Nicola Bennert expects will be "Galaxy Zoo's lasting legacy" - the ability of many public eyes to spot strangeness among quantities of data too vast for scientists to check alone. It's cutting-edge science - yet it's something any member of the public can join in.

We have three main "pea experts" on the forum: Rick, Laihro, and Starry Nite. Straight away we ran into the same problem as with the Voorwerp: neither Laihro nor Starry Nite live in the UK. Rick, however, lives in Bristol. "Yes," said Colin, "we could get to Bristol." Waveney was a must for this one, too, as he'd written peas-sorting classification pages to select the ones Carie wanted. Yes, Colin said, he could probably get to Poole too. I walked up and down the flagstones just outside our front door, hoping Rick and Waveney would be happy to be interviewed. It was a beautiful day and my lunatic fluffy cat was alternately rubbing and attacking my feet. I kept preparing to have to excuse myself in order to shut her indoors. But it was such a fascinating chat. "Is there anything else you'd like to tell me about Galaxy Zoo?" Colin asked me.

"Yes," I said. "We've got such an incredible community." And I told him about how much work we do together on the forum and our meet-ups. I wasn't sure if that could be included, but to me it's one of the jewels in our crown. Colin sounded more interested than I'd been expecting. "Some of them have Skype chats," I said. "In fact, I guess you could record a Skype conference to get the people abroad." That wasn't one of my better ideas - the camera people certainly ruled it out - but I also suggested (and we might just still go ahead with this; I don't know yet) that people with Skype point their cameras at themselves from the side or back while they classify. "We could show a montage of people classifying all over the world!" said Colin.

I told him about our get-togethers - and suddenly an idea hit me. "You could come on a get-together and interview us there!"

I heard a tiny little pause - the sort which meant that this was an idea which could work. Even better, if we could have one where zookeepers came along as well, and talked to him and the volunteers . . . If we could have one in Oxford . . . Perhaps he could find us some computers where we could do some classifying . . . I'll talk to Chris, I said, and get back to you. One other thing, Colin said, could we have some JPEGs of galaxies? You bet we could - I'd already done a little of that for "The Sky at Night" for the Galaxy Zoo episode in September! SDSS images have some copyright (we can use them for anything, but have to get permission if it's commercial), but sorting that out would be - and was - a friendly and straightforward process. We hung up and I felt very excited indeed.

A few days and a flurry of e-mails between me, Colin, Chris and our pea heroes later, I invited the zooites to Oxford for 21st June. If you scroll down the first post you'll see the ideas as a list - we haven't done them all yet!

It was a wonderful day. Lots of zooites came to this one, including (as always with our big meet-ups) a few new people. I was especially delighted that Els travelled over from Belgium, Hanny from the Netherlands, and pea genius Laihro from Germany! I think all my organisational skills were given over to the documentary part, because I managed to book myself and two others into the wrong youth hostel and forget to pack my hairbrush - not what you want to do when you're about to be filmed.

During the morning, Colin and cameraman Brendon interviewed Chris while I spent two hours at Oxford Railway Station waiting for arrivals. This was great: invariably surrounded by two or more fellow zooites, and waving a makeshift "Galaxy Zoo" sign around which earned us a fair few funny looks and one question about what we were advertising! It was most interesting to see people introduced for the first time, such as Rick and Laihro; although our forum personalities generally start showing through after a few minutes of conversation, zooites' faces are rarely what many of us picture. Rick had dressed very smartly and Laihro was about 40 years younger than I think most of us had imagined. Hanny and Edd had just got back from Ireland and were dragging a week's luggage around. Waveney turned up in a dark blue shirt with a brilliantly coloured fish pattern and some fancy new business cards he couldn't resist showing us. "Thanks," I said. "I'll know who to ask next time I want to build an aeroplane."

Colin came along to introduce himself and we had a lovely lunch at the Big Bang restaurant . . .

. . . after which we went to Oxford Astrophysics and were herded into a lecture theartre - where we met Pamela and Georgia, who had arrived in the UK at 6am! In this picture, our programming genius Arfon is standing in front of the blackboard in a white shirt. "You look better than my undergraduates - a lot more intelligent," said Chris as we found our seats. But when we wouldn't stop yacking, he had to yell, "Quiet. Shut up, you lot. You are as bad as my undergraduates!"

It wasn't a lecture, however, even though they did claim to have hidden the biscuits: it was a sneak preview of two future Zoo projects! The first is about merger simulations. Arfon would put an SDSS image of a merging galaxy up on the screen, and we'd use a program to find a diagram that resembled it most, and then run the simulation to see what happened to it. After that we bombarded Chris and Arfon with suggestions (mine was to tell the program to stop trying too hard to imitate the target image - human eyes are far better at that than computers!). I must confess I spent most of my time getting frustrated with my inability to operate the program, but cleverer people loved it! What was more my line came next: Hubble Space Telescope zoo, and how fuzzy could the galaxies be before they become impossible to classify? Actually, I got interested enough to write an Object of the Day about that one, to get more data for Chris. The main answer was: "It depends what sort of classifications you want." Fair point. I'll be doing another one when Chris's laptop is returned to him (no, I don't know what's happened to it now, but it seems to do this to him). In the following picture, you'll see the frowns of concentration and Geoff and Jules's fabulous Zoo T-shirts:

After all this intellectual business, we went along to the Royal Oak, where Galaxy Zoo was invented. It's a wonderful labyrinth of rooms and stone floors and tables and funny-shaped bits of wood, seeming like a quiet country cottage on the edge of the wide noisy Woodstock Road. The picnic tables perch close together on the flagstones of the beer garden. It was here that Chris and Kevin kindly took me for dinner after a day of beta-testing Zoo 2 last June - and here where Kevin was "whinging" (in Pamela's words) about having 850,000 more galaxies to classify, whereupon he and Chris thought of showing them to the public. Colin had booked us in, and they'd roped us off a room and given us permission to film there. Apparently they hadn't heard of Galaxy Zoo! "This place is always full of astronomers," Chris told us. We Zooites reckoned it ought to have a Galaxy Zoo plaque. Perhaps in our elderly years it will be a place of pilgrimage . . .

The Royal Oak

After we'd settled down and had a few drinks and got started on the serious chattering, Colin and Brendon set up their camera in a table in a corner of the beer garden. There's a sweet little arch leading directly to the pavement; just when it was my turn to be interviewed some very noisy people trotted through it to screech cheerily at the people on our next table, so I hung around on camera for some five minutes without saying a word, waiting for them to be finished! We will all be appearing on camera with a tall hedge behind us, not looking at the camera, but looking at Colin, who asked the questions.

At the edge of the beer garden:

Colin reminded me patiently to please work the question into my answer, because the questions wouldn't appear in the documentary. I kept forgetting to do this. I tried to be expressive, as I'd caught onto when I lived in Spain in 2003-04, and wave my hands around, but I fear I overdid it rather - especially when trying to explain spectra! My mouth was very dry after the interview and I made straight for the bar, but it still took some time to get there because everybody was so friendly and wanted to talk to me. I guess you get used to interviews, as you do to lectures and teaching. Their first question was "What has been your main role in Galaxy Zoo?" I replied that I am the benevolent dictator. The last question was the hardest: Why classify? Why should people bother? I honestly couldn't answer that! I suggested to Chris afterwards that I should have said, "Why breathe?"

The next thing to sort out is the JPEGs and also to see if we're still doing the Skype montage! The documentary won't be out for a while. It was wonderful when Colin and Brendon remarked that without the get-together, the number of interviews they'd recorded today would have taken them 6 months and cost thousands of pounds. I knew, and probably still know, only a small amount about the process of making a documentary - but finding out what I have, and especially being the point of contact and arrangements, has been and is a wonderful experience. You don't need lots of training or bits of paper. You need a bit of imagination and to know who to go to with what; you need to be prepared to send and receive lots of e-mails, and - well, just to know a lot about the people you're working with. Addiction to the forum is a very good thing.

Thanks to everybody who came along - as ever, it was you folks who made it such a special day. Thanks for all your photos, several of which I have stolen, and for all your enthusiasm and great messages on the thread. The icing on the cake was when Chris handed out lots of the first pea paper to everyone who appeared on the acknowledgements. People without astronomy qualifications, without PhDs, some of whom knew little astronomy before starting Galaxy Zoo, were finding their names on a scientific paper. And we've discovered a new class of galaxy, and there's still a lot more to find out about them. We really have given peas a chance!

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Icing of free speech; if we can't get democracy, let us eat cake

At some point, I don't yet know when, I and at least one other person are planning to go to Parliament Square to eat cakes with "peace" iced upon them. We will need police permission to do this, which is why we're going.

Confused? Let me, or better still Mark Thomas, explain.

Over two years ago, someone on my course sent round a wonderful BBC radio show about a comedian and political activist about the SOCPA law. This is entitled "The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act", but in fact it's only about political demonstrations!

By law, now, you have to apply to the police 6 days in advance if you're going to hold a demonstration within large zone around Parliament Square. This was originally intended to get rid of Brian Haw, but, for hilarious reasons, it failed to work. Meanwhile, everybody else must get special permission to so much as wear a tiny badge or a red nose. If they don't, they can be arrested. This is why Maya Evans (whose book is very good, by the way) was arrested for reading out the names of soldiers who died.

The story and comments on the BBC Radio 4 site are excellent. One person wrote in that they oughtn't to put a warning about strong language; they ought to put one about danger of crashing your car because you're laughing too much to drive properly whilst listening! Others asked the serious question of whether it's a waste of police time, which Mark answered very well, and begged for a podcast, which never was made. However, somebody put it on youtube and broke down the show into 3 episodes. I am not sure I ever laughed as much as when I listened to it! Find out exactly what happened about the cake, and how it and Winston Churchill returned to haunt the poor police, and much, much more . . .

Mark Thomas: My Life in Serious Organised Crime
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

I went to see Mark Thomas once, at the Tricycle Theatre in London. The first part of the show was about SOCPA, and the second about the arms trade. The second I was riveted with attention and often anger but hope too. The first, since I knew the story, I could concentrate on the jokes - and I had tears of laughter pouring down my face for about 20 minutes. My tissue was a soggy shred in 30 seconds or so. I had never and have never since cried so much, let alone with laughter! I can't resist a few additions that didn't appear on the radio show. For instance, the blessed PC Paul MacInally, who you just have to admire for his forbearace (even if he was the chap who arrested Maya Evans), listened to the radio show with his superior in case there was anything they had to refute. According to Mark Thomas that night, there was nothing, though he did get told off by his boss for the "one man's shit is another man's crap is another man's poo" bit. Apparently his young children thought he was extremely cool! Best of all, we got some of the reactions during the 21 demonstrations. For instance, a woman ran out of the BBC to beg them not to demonstrate about Big Brother, telling them how popular it was. And an aged gentleman was huffing and puffing at a bus stop, grumbling about how disruptive young people are these days, always raising havoc and making a lot of noise - then saw their Patricia Hewitt placard. "Oh, I quite agree. She's ghastly!"

(NB the above will be much funnier once you've listened to the show!)

A month or so later, I met Mark Thomas at a demonstration in Brighton. It was to save the local A&E departments; evidently the government wanted only one for a very large area, even though the three operating were already bursting at the seams. I later tried (unsuccessfully) to get the local campaign group to join hands, or at least trade useful information, with Pembrokeshire's local hospital campaign, SWAT, because I didn't think local campaigns would get anywhere if they all tried to save their own services at the expense of their neighbours'; this would have to be a national campaign, not subjected to divide and rule. Anyway, I wouldn't have known Mark Thomas if the leader hadn't pointed him out, but being an impressionable 24-year-old I couldn't resist sidling up to him and making some asinine comment he'd probably heard before. He was surprisingly quiet and seemed rather sad. I gather that's typical of many comedians; I myself tell more jokes than usual when I'm depressed or unwell. He was ever such a friendly person, quiet but talkative and full of information, and an excellent listener too. Just as we parted company I asked, "How's PC Paul MacInally?" Mark laughed, and another companion said, "Where did that come from?" so incredulously that I felt embarrassed and wondered if it really had been Mark Thomas I was talking to all this time. I think it was . . .

Anyway, back to the cakes! Once we've decided when to do it (i.e. when I'm in London and have time and preparation time to fill out a form and ice the cakes!), we have two options. Will we take the cakes to Parliament Square and see what the police do? Or shall we request permission to eat them? We decided to go for the latter. Let me know if you'd be interested in taking part, not to mention if you have better cake-icing skills than I do. I did have a few minutes' training on it working for Thorntons a few years ago, but I haven't done much since then . . .

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The "She's an Astronomer" project

The International Year of Astronomy are running a "cornerstone project", as they call it, called "She's an Astronomer" (formerly "she is", but that was never going to catch on). Approximately a quarter of astronomers are women, but the distribution varies from country to country - in some, >50% are women, and in others, none. Since I'm not an astronomer or even a mad keen career girl, except in the forum and writing of course, I shall leave it to wiser heads to work out why. You can read more about women in astronomy here, and some of the other interview blogs here.

Galaxy Zoo are interviewing 12 women, publishing one interview on the first of each month. Karen Masters is hosting it. She's doing some Galaxy Zoo work but I haven't persuaded her to come to the forum yet, which is a shame as she is lovely! (And her website is worth a look, incidentally.) She's devised a pattern of volunteer-scientist-volunteer-scientist, so it'll be another professional next month. Today was me. I sound a lot rantier than I originally meant to. Perhaps Karen edited out a lot of "um"s and "er"s and "in my opinion"s for brevity's sake. Or perhaps tying it when the spacebar on my keyboard had stopped working didn't help. Update: Never write things like this, even jokingly as I did. Now Karen's read it. :( Bless her for agreeing to yet another edit, and she's written us a fantastic post you should read!

Three of the four forum moderators are female, though the zookeepers are almost all male; I wonder if the former has had an effect on the forum? For example, occasionally people complain that there's no sense of racing or competition - which I, personally, think is one of our greatest attributes. Or am I going to be lynched for suggesting that women are less competitive than men? Oh well, you can try, I guess - I will sit here on this side of the screen and LAUGH!

It really does bug me how often I see women's abilities judged by their appearance. This is not only bad for us flat and/or ugly ones, but patronising and bossy to the Miss Worlds too. If you think it's good for a woman to get by because she's good-looking, read "Octavia" or "The Photograph" - both excellent books (yes, even the Jilly Cooper one is very well thought out!). I expect the same thing happens to men, too, but possibly not so much. So, all in all, I let myself have quite a liberating grumble about that!

Earlier on, I was given the agonising task of finding more Galaxy Zoo ladies to be interviewed. I was asked to select 2, which was utterly impossible; Karen kindly agreed to be pushed up to 4. Even so it was almost an impossible choice, so I can only apologise to those who I left out. It should hopefully emerge over the next 10 months that I picked women who are great members of our forum, but who haven't yet had their share of centre stage publicity (sorry Els and Pat, mates, you're out! But I would have if I could!). Anyway - the remaining 4 - I can't wait to hear your doubtless very different and probably more knowledgeable stories than mine.

And a big thank you to Karen for running this, and putting up with my 50,000 requested edits!

Totally off topic, but today's APOD is lovely and draws this post to a very nice close.

P.S. Read about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and the best "She was an Astronomer" Object of the Day I can write for her here!