Saturday, 30 January 2010

I survived homeopathic suicide! Because there's nothing in it.

Shortly after 9:30 this morning I set off for the 10:23 overdose event - for the reasons I blogged a few days ago. It had hailed before I'd woken up and the car was covered in make-believe snow.

I'd brought the 30C arnica, and there was time to buy a bottle of water - I was a bit nervous in case I couldn't swallow the wretched things (I don't swallow pills easily and prefer tiny ones). I hadn't had much sleep, mostly because of nerves, though my boyfriend had cheered me up over instant messenger. He'd dutifully gone to bed at about 1am, and was then back about two minutes later saying he'd suddenly felt the irresistable urge to calculate how many glucose molecules there'd be in each pill.

I reminded myself of the molecular mass of glucose: 6 carbons, whose molecular weight is 12; 12 hydrogens, whose molecular weight is 1; 6 oxygens, whose molecular weight is 16. That came to 180. What this actually means is that 1 mole of glucose weighs 180g. 1g of hydrogen would contain the same number of molecules as 180g glucose. A mole is Avogadro's constant, a very specific number of atoms: approximately 6 x 10 to the power 23 (I wish this blog did superscript!). In fact, that's what inspired 10:23's name.

I let my boyfriend finish off the maths. He calculated that for every 1 molecule of arnica (assuming that it is, indeed, a pure substance!), there would be a number of molecules of glucose that ended in 39 zeros! Edd made a similar point: enough molecules for 15,000 solar masses ("Broadly speaking, on a clear night in ideal conditions, with your naked eye you will have around the right number of stars to add up to that much matter. Maybe not quite enough, but not far off").

Of course, there are not this many molecules on the Earth, but this is because every single step of diluting involves adding a new 99 drops of water and dispensing with another 99. Most of the substance gets washed away!

To put it another way, to find a single molecule of arnica in little tubes like mine, my boyfriend worked out, at the price of £5.19 per tube, you'd have to buy enough to fund 2 billion billion billion Apollo programs!

Anyway, I wandered back and forth in front of Boots, and at one point went round the back to check there was nobody on that side. Finally Katy Woodhouse, a lovely lady from the Western Telegraph (my local newspaper), arrived with a big umbrella and a little camera and notepad. Her first question to me was: "Why do you feel so strongly about it?"

I had to answer, "I don't - I'm doing this partly for fun! That is, I think there are more important things to worry about - but I also believe the public ought to know what they're getting when they buy homeopathy." Because many people very clearly don't. I explained to her how it's often confused with herbal medicine, and how homeopaths are apt to advise people to give up vital conventional medicine when they need it - as pointed out in a poignant tweet last night from Josa Young: "I support because consulting a homeopath delayed my mother getting proper treatment for her ovarian cancer. She died at 68."

I told Katy that this was taking place all over England, but I didn't know of any other lone demonstrations, or any others in Wales. If either of these did take place, I'd be so glad to know!

She was writing shorthand, which fascinated me. "It took ages to learn," she told me. She asked me if Boots really actually sold this stuff - since she didn't believe in it, she'd never looked for it! I took her in to see the rows upon rows of weird-named tubes. There was no note about "without approved therapeutic something or other" that I'd thought I'd seen. My arnica box was the only product that explained what it actually did. I showed her the "a
rsenic alba". At just that point an elderly gentleman needed to get in between us to pick out a couple, swearing that they cured his bruising. "Do they actually work?" asked Katy politely, and he assured her they did. I kept quiet until he'd gone, then said, "Many different testimonies."

By the time we got back outside, it was a minute or two after 10:23! Hurriedly, I put my bag down by the railings and tried to get the vial open. I couldn't. I tried and tried. You have to press the bottom upwards. Then Katy had a go. It was beginning to snow now. After several mintues of talk and feeling exceptionally stupid, I went back into Boots and asked an assistant - the same lady, I believe, who'd sold it to me! - if she could help me get it open! She gave me a strange look, but found that she had to practically stand on it as well. I thanked her profusely and dashed outside. Katy took a couple of photos, one with the river in the background, the other with the Boots sign. Then I settled down again and started clicking the dispenser. Every few clicks, a little white sugary blob skittered into the cap. I started munching them like crisps.

Katy couldn't help looking a bit worried - especially when I explained the symptoms of ingesting arnica! She asked me to give her a ring later to let her know what happened to me, as she had to go on and do other things. I just remembered in time to give her this sheet from Sense About Science, which is terrific. She was really nice, and let me rattle on about the weird statistics calculated during silly hours! The pills were yummy too - with roughly the crunchiness of especially tiny, dense Mini Egg covering, and not too surprisingly tasting precisely like, well, sugar. "And you believe so strongly that you'll be safe . . ." was one of Katy's parting lines. Yup. And I felt no ill effects at all. There weren't even enough to give me a sugar rush. I'd finished almost all by the time she'd gone. And then I went shopping and then I went home!

It didn't take long for the news to appear on the BBC website and a great many wonderful videos and pictures to appear on 1023. This is probably my favourite photo:

People on the Have Your Say BBC forum are beautifully divided. Many are greatly shocked to learn that such an unscientific quackery is even on sale, let alone in Boots. Others seem to be hurling accusations. Here are some FHA (Frequently Hurled Accusations):

"you are in the pay of Big Pharma"
Not this again. For one thing, the fact that that is wrong doesn't make it right. Does the Iraq war make the genocide in Sudan right? And what about the fact that Big Pharma produces homeopathy?

"it worked for me"
Everything works for somebody, or nearly. One chap's depression was cured after he got a mate to hammer a nail into his head as a suicide attempt. Interestingly, the diseases people were describing were stress-related, and the treatments involved extensive consultation following an annoying sort of time. The real treatment was probably getting a bit of attention, and feeling more positive. Anecdotes are where you start your studies, not where you conclude them.

"you are having a tantrum and throwing your dummie [sic] out of the pram"
Well, I had a great time, looked like everyone else was too. We sure educated some of the commentators, if not all.

"scientists used to say the Earth was flat, therefore homeopathy is right"
No, the ancient Greeks measured the lengths of shadows in different latitudes to work out the Earth's diameter.

And many more amount to - "live and let live" (Yeah - we don't want babies to die because their parents refuse to treat them normally . . . as does happen!); "you people have nothing better to do" (Yeah - I came home and ate a damn good meal!) and "I have an opinion; I am Entitled to My Opinion; This makes Me sacred; therefore homeopathy is right."

I meant to write something more serious than that, so I think I'll stop now.

Good on you folks for organising a hilariously funny day. Actually, sometime, I would be interested in taking on "Big Pharma", because I know that in some countries and situations they are pretty dodgy. I predict with some confidence that the homeopaths will go beserk with rage at us for this shameless attempt to undermine the noble, scientific producers of their . . . er . . . opinion-drink.

I'll post the link to the local rag when it comes out!

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Anyone up for joining me outside Boots at 10:23 am for a homeopathic overdose?

This Saturday, 30th January - by which time I seriously hope I will have sent off my tax return - if all goes well, you will find a gawky fair-haired woman with glasses and big teeth overdosing on homeopathic medicine outside the Boots in Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire.

Now, why am I doing such a damn silly thing?

Well, nationwide - and, even, internationally - a few hundred other people are doing exactly the same thing for the Ten 23 campaign. Their slogan is: "Homeopathy: There's nothing in it."

You can read more on the above link about homeopathy - and I'm sure many homeopaths will be glad to tell you their side of the story. Shelley the Republican also promises miracles from it . . . (sorry, couldn't resist!). Anyway, the basic principle is that a tiny amount of something that causes the symptoms someone is suffering from should be taken, and the more dilute, the stronger it is. When atoms and molecules were discovered, and simple arithmetic points out that it is unlikely that a single molecule of the active ingredient will remain, the homeopaths suggested that "water has a memory". In other words, the water should "remember the ingredient".

As Ben Goldacre points out in his book, water molecules are tiny, and this is rather like expecting several bags of peas to "remember" the shape of a sofa. And as Crispian Jago puts it, let's hope they don't remember all the other things they've surrounded - bearing in mind that water molecules are mostly millions or billions of years old . . . Homeopaths get around the latter point by claiming that beating a vial of said water 10 times against a horsehair something-or-other will "make it forget" everything else. As for the former? Ummmm . . . I think just by getting extremely angry.

At this point several people will say, "But homeopathy worked for me." What is more likely to have happened is that you got better because you were going to get better anyway - this is called "regression to the mean". Also, the act of taking something gave you a feeling that something changed, and lifted your expectations. This encouragement, and feeling of being looked after itself, might boost your feeling of general well-being. This is called "the placebo effect", and study after study finds that homeopathy works no better than this. You can read more about the placebo effect here.

In the meantime, how do they turn this magic water into pills? Well, it appears that they drip it onto sugar and then let it evaporate. I hate to break it to you, but, yes - the water is no longer there. And molecules of sugar fit in between water molecules, not around them so as to take up some weird shape . . .

I can well imagine that a carer or doctor and their patient might well benefit everyone by giving people who are permanently stressed a placebo - their real problem is they are over-tired, not looked after, depressed, or just a general whinger. But this comes at a cost. It avoids dealing with the person's real problem - and it boosts sham science and medicine.

Which brings me to why the Ten 23 Campaign are picking on Boots especially. Boots is a trusted high street chain, supposed to be very knowledgeable of medicine, and to provide customers with the best treatment. Therefore, the campaign is asking them not to sell pseudoscience because it is not in the customer's best interest. As we point out, it is really not the best option, and can indeed be dangerous if real treatment for a real problem is delayed or rejected.

Boots themselves admit that this is pseudomedicine, but they continue to sell it "for consumer choice". That is a classic example of assuming market forces make the best choices. They don't. Everyone wants to sell their product, and will mislead people into thinking that it will do more than it really will. Market forces are routinely manipulated, and Boots is merely taking advantage of this to make more money.

Oh, and for anyone who's reading this and concluding that I'm in the pay of "Big Pharma" - well, for one thing this is not America, and we get all our prescription medicines free in Wales, so I can't see that that makes them a big profit. More seriously, yes, the pharmaceutical industry has plenty of faults (I could go on and on about what some certain people do to doctors trying to publish research they don't like . . . !). But this does not somehow magically make alternative medicine work. Conventional and alternative medicine are not opposites, or black and white in some way. The difference is that conventional medicine passes the scientific tests, and alternative medicine does not.

Returning to the question of "consumer choice": a real choice is an informed choice. To make a guess at what to buy, on the basis of a random person's statement that "Big Pharma is evil" or "homeopathy worked for me, I don't pretend to understand the science but it works" is not much of a choice - and many people do not have the education or the information at hand to sift through the truckloads of different advice. This morning I went to the Boots in Haverfordwest to check out their homeopathic range.

I found it under a big sign that said "Alternative Medicines". Vitamins, herbal remedies, and weird packet soups seemed to appear on the shelves at random amongst the homeopathy. There were an awful lot of 3 for 2 offers, and very little on-shelf labelling, so I had to pick up individual products to see what was homeopathy and what wasn't. There were dozens and dozens of bizarrely-named little vials, such as "Sulphur" and "Nux Vomita" (lovely!) - and no information at all about what symptoms they were supposed to treat. I finally bought the one product that actually did indicate that, namely "Nelsons Arnica 30c pillules".

There is a little logo of a green leaf with a white cross, disturbingly - and obviously deliberately - similar to the green cross on a white background of pharmacies. It describes itself as "Arnica Montana: A homeopathic medicinal product used within the homeopathic tradition for the symptomatic relief of sprains, muscular aches and bruising or swelling after contusions."

It also contains several warnings. I must not overdose (oh dear!). I must consult a doctor if I do that, and bring the medicine with me. I must also consult a doctor if I use while pregnant or breastfeeding. When taking the medicine I must take extreme care not to touch it with my hands, but must empty the pills into the cap and then into my mouth. If symptoms persist or worsen after 7 days I must consult a doctor. And I must not use after the expiry date has passed.

To be fair on Boots, or more likely the law generally, I think there was a tiny label on the shelf noting that it was "without approved therapeutic something or other" (sorry about that; I thought it was on the product but I now can't find it - I will go back and check on Saturday). But everything else about it suggested that this was a proper medicine.

I took it to the counter and handed it to the nice lady on the other side, and asked innocently, "I was wondering, how do these things actually work?" She opened it up to show me how to open the product, and explained that it was to treat bruises and sprains, so I made a minor remark about getting bruises all the time (which is true - I'm always walking into things). She also advised me to take it before an operation because it would reduce the bleeding. I asked vaguely, "It's this like cures like business, isn't it?" She looked perplexed, but said "Yes". I couldn't go on. I'm a terrible liar. I just bought it and managed to get out of the shop before I doubled up with laughter.

When I got home, my mum read the packaging even more carefully with me, and laughed even harder. She then raced to look up arnica. She knew, of course, that it's a traditional medicine in folklore, rubbed on the skin where there is bruising, and it does seem to have some useful properties. She found out how it works: it encourages vasodilation, the slight enlarging of blood vessels to let more blood through. This is what happens on your skin when, for example, you feel hot or you blush. So it is logical that this would deal with the bruising faster: the blood would take away the waste products and disintegrating blood cells, and bring along the materials to mend it.

The main principle of this, of course, is that this is a product to be rubbed on the skin. Not to swallow. If you swallow arnica in a large enough quantity, why, presumably you get the vasodilation inside your digestive system. In any case, you certainly get severe gastroenteritis and internal bleeding. Now, if I had reason to believe that there was sufficient arnica in this complex glass vial I've spent £5.19 on, I'd be doing something very dangerous indeed.

It doesn't even follow homeopathy's own dogma of "like cures like". If a tiny trace of ingredient which causes the symptoms is supposed to treat them - as I think is supposed to be their philosophy - shouldn't it follow that this medicine is supposed to treat gastroentiritis and internal bleeding? Or, perhaps, that it should cause more bruising on the skin rather than less? Well, I'll let you know after Saturday morning!

I want to thank @irlbinky on Twitter for his huge encouragement and support, and my other fellow skeptics @Zeno001, @JackofKent, @Crispian_Jago and many others. And also hoping to see another fellow Twitterer there on Saturday, if it turns out he can make it (as I don't think he's visited this blog yet he might not want me to give his name.) And I hope to tell you a lot more this coming weekend.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

May David Kelly rest in peace. May Britain never do so until truth is found and justice done.

I barely have words for the news, here and here, that all evidence relating to Dr David Kelly's death have been locked away for 70 years.

Dr Kelly advised the government before the Iraq war that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction. For this, he was ridiculed and overruled. The summer our country went to war, his body was found in the woods. The inquest said he'd killed himself.

It wasn't exactly hard for those trained in medical matters to point out that cutting your wrist, as he was reported to have done, does not actually cause one to bleed to death - and someone as knowledgeable in such matters as Dr Kelly would have known far better ways to do it. Ever since, the question has left hanging: does this mean someone else did it for him?

The Hutton Enquiry was much criticised by news readers as a "whitewash". It has a whole website, full of documents and timetables. But it's only now been reported in the press that "a 30-year ban was placed on ‘records provided [which were] not produced in evidence’" and "Lord Hutton ordered all medical reports – including the post-mortem findings by pathologist Dr Nicholas Hunt and photographs of Dr Kelly’s body – to remain classified information for 70 years".

This is not a usual move, and the conclusion is obvious to many: there is something that Lord Hutton knows needs hiding.

The motto for many totalitarian states, and supporters of biometric ID cards, is "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear."

Innocent citizens are distrusted to the depth that they must submit their fingerprints, DNA, iris scans, job, everywhere they have lived, and further private information which the government hardly needs - not just now, but to all future governments to come, whatever might happen: and trust them with this information. Are we supposed to trust this government when it makes it quite so clear that it has blood on its hands?

Comments abound on the Daily Mail website - very articulate, combining civilisation with bitterness and rage, not at all the insulting drivel you often get on the web. Many people publicly say, "We need a revolution". My comment - along with many others, I gather - vanished. I hope the people of Britain and around the world will never forgive the killing of David Kelly. I hope that those who do know something for certain speak out, though I fear such might cost them their lives too.

It's all a rather surreal feeling, as if I'm trapped in a political novel such as George R R Martin's "A Game of Thrones". I remember delving into the sneaky atrocities committed by politicians in History lessons, feeling a combined horror that mankind could ever have sunk so low, and an unstated safe sense that surely this couldn't happen today. How wrong I was. I wish we could do something. But what?

In any case, although David Kelly's death is another death to all who care about our illegal war, there's no point sinking into too much misery, as that won't help. So if you need cheering up or to know that you can do something, try attempting a peaceful citizen's arrest!

Update, almost a year later: I did subsequently find out that a lot of skeptics I respect are very doubtful that Dr Kelly's death was suspicious. I do realise that the Daily Mail are apt to encourage suspicion. I'm not a fanatic; I would not turn away from good evidence. But that's precisely what's being hidden.

It's an ugly topic, not only in itself but when you look outside it, at Dr Kelly's family, for example. How horrendous, that the enormity of losing him should be reduced to something people squabble over, and is something for which they demand all the facts that can possibly be obtained.

I'm from a medical family, and two things continue to bother me: a) you cannot die by slashing your wrists, and b) Dr Kelly would certainly have known this. (Apparently he had a condition which made it possible. But surely he would not have known that, or risked it?)

Anyway, I'll be watching this space . . . and whatever happened, I hope it never happens again, and that his family are finding peace.

Why Crispian Jago loves Carl Sagan - and so do so many more

If you haven't yet seen this work of genius from Crispian Jago, hurry along to see what he says here. He already puts it perfectly, so check out his words. Click here to see a large version (that, again, is from Crispian's excellent blog).

It's quite true, from the far-too-little-so-far I've read of his work (oh, my booklist is undergoing inflation!). In "Pale Blue Dot", for example, one minute he's telling us easily and captivatingly about ancient history, next minute it's robots, then it's projects that were nothing to do with space that led on to make wonderful discoveries about space - and vice versa. Did you know it was studying the other planets in our Solar System that led us to discover the greenhouse effect and the hole in the ozone layer?

Never met you, Carl, but I miss you already.

My only problem with this picture is that it only contains 2 or possibly 3 women. But it's great to run through it and see so many familiar faces - and wonder what the unfamiliar ones did. What's more, it's never too late in life to start finding out.

Monday, 25 January 2010

Great pictures around the Solar System

Just thought I'd do quick a round-up of some utterly wonderful pictures I've seen over the last few days. Starting with the Red Planet, which was hanging about low on the horizon to the east the other evening, looking very orange indeed: here is its "layered landscape". From NASA:

A quite different view of a landscape weirdity, reported by Phil Plait and APOD a few days later. Apparently the dark tree-like shapes are cascades of dust, disturbed and falling in an avalanche after the sublimation of frozen carbon dioxide. Personally, I just can't see them as that. My eyes persist in assuring me that they are standing up, nice and vertical against a landscape of a quite different angle - and my brain refuses to accept what is going on. It's like seeing a straight ruler over a lumpy duvet to me, and being told the ruler is the same shape as the cloth. Could somebody explain it in idiot's terms, or do I just need new glasses already? It's amazing anyway . . .

Moving a little outward, here's Jupiter - the world in the Solar System more massive than all other worlds, their moons, and all space debris such as comets and asteroids put together. Go to Phil Plait again for the article, and here to "enjovinate" or embiggen. Marvel at the gas that has formed those twisting, valley-like areas, and try to take in that the Great Red Spot could fit a couple of Earths inside.

Heading into the very heart of the Solar System, our best friend and local star behind the Moon, where it shows what we don't otherwise see. From the Brno University of Technology, Czech Republic, and another enlargement to play with here.

And finally, I don't know who developed this, but I want one! Tweeted by NASA_SDO. Now that is a proper spacebar.

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Waste not, want not. What to do after the Tia Maria and cream experiment

So I ended up with two glasses of Tia Maria, one topped with cream, the other mixed with cream, not to mention a little cup of cream flavoured with Tia Maria. Incidentally, that cream had grown an amazing rubbery skin, not protein-y, quite different somehow. Anyway, I figured I'd make a chocolate cake.

Traditional recipe for a chocolate cake:

8oz butter
8oz sugar
4 eggs
8oz self-raising flour
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 lid full of vanilla essence

(If you are really desperate for grams, let me know. For me, those are for science, and Imperial is for food.)

Preheat oven to Gas Mark 4.
Grease 2 baking tins. Sift the flour and cocoa powder, and set aside.
Put the butter and sugar together in a bowl. Beat them until they are "creamed" - light and fluffy.
Break the eggs into a small bowl, beat with a knife until they are more or less an even mixture. Stir in the vanilla essence. Add about a third of this egg mixture plus a big spoonful of flour into the beaten butter and sugar, and fold in. Keep adding flour and egg until they are all stirred in.
Spoon this mixture evenly into the tins, and cook for 30 or 40 minutes - times vary depending on oven.

How to make cake like Alice

Same quantities as above apply, except that I'm now not 100% sure I didn't only use 4oz butter. Strangely, this didn't seem to upset anything. The cake was moist and really just right.

Put the butter into a bowl and leave it on the Aga to warm, as it's rock-hard from being in the fridge. Sift the flour, and then suddenly remember to grease the tins. Go and find them. Wash the dust out. Doesn't matter. The mixture needs to start cooking quickly if you've stirred the eggs into it, but before that, it's fine to hang about.

Decide that dark brown sugar would go well in a chocolate cake. Only dark brown sugar available is also rock hard, despite being kept in an air tight box (pah!). Take a cleaver to it, bag and all. Chop as hard as if you were trying to behead Marie Antoinette. As it happens, about 5oz worth is just what comes off, clean as a whistle and certainly cleaner than a head. Put this in a small bowl. Fill another small bowl with water. Put these both in the microwave.

No, I haven't gone nuts here - this is actually a tip from Robert Wolke's wonderful "What Einstein Told His Cook", a hilarious food chemistry book that I must review here one day. Brown sugar goes hard because it dries out and behaves like cement. He recommends leaving it in a really airtight box with a cup of water or just a wet piece of kitchen paper for a few days - but putting it in the microwave is a quick remedy which won't last so long; and you add the water so the poor microwaves have somewhere to go!

Anyway - be delighted with how soft the sugar goes. Think how cool science is. Add it to the butter, find it is about 5oz, and add 3oz caster sugar to top it up. Find a new bag for remaining brown sugar and return it to not very airtight container, making a mental note to do something about it one day, probably whilst next in use. Apply big wooden spoon and find, oops, should have left brown sugar in microwave for longer. Attempt to break lumps with spoon. After some time, remove biggest lumps from mixture and put (with buttery mixture and all) into pestle and mortar. Grind them up. Feel suitably avenged. As for the smaller lumps, they will melt into the cake later.

Find out there is no cocoa powder!! How can this be . . . ? Go through cupboards, find only very weak Tesco drinking chocolate. Unwilling to use. Eventually find some dark chocolate. Attempt to grate it. Seems successful until realise said chocolate appears to have filling. Re-read packet several times. Ooops - it's chilli chocolate! Didn't even know there was such a thing. Hmmmm, cake will be interesting now, but too late, flakes already in mixture. Find some more ordinary dark chocolate. Refuses to grate at more than 1 molecule a minute. Get fed up. Break into pieces into mortar. Put mortar in microwave on low power. Works a treat - even while chocolate looks solid, it melts as soon as touched by spoon. Stir into mixture.

Beat eggs, add these, vanilla essence and flour - at least this bit goes right. Finally, add all of the not-very-creamy glass of Tia Maria, and about half of the creamy one. Stir in. Smells wonderful. Put in Aga. Ha ha, didn't need to preheat it. I love Agas.

Now the kitchen is beautifully messy, and aren't I lucky - I have more chocolate grating to do. Get out a wooden chopping board this time. Grate and grate and grate, and finally use a mezzaluna to chop up the tiny bit that refuses to be grated!!

Pour most of a pint of double cream into a bowl. Get an egg-beater and twizzle it for a while. When it starts thickening just a little, but not much, put the remaining cream and Tia Maria together, along with about 1.5 teaspoonfuls of coffee, into the cool oven of the Aga. When this fails to dissolve the coffee, give up and bung it in microwave on a low temperature. Comes out not looking like faintly caramel-coloured cream anymore, but more like rich dark coffee. Add this to cream. Whip in. Cream turns the most delicious colour and smells very professional. When it's got more solid than liquid, then stir in the grated chocolate (I didn't want to do that too soon or the chocolate particles would only get even smaller). Finish whipping until you can barely get the egg beater out. Get as much cream off this as you can, first with knife, then with fingers. Lick fingers. Put bowl of chocolatey, coffee-y, Tia Maria-y cream into fridge.

Get out cakes when they a) are smelling delicious, b) pull back from the tin, c) spring back perfectly when you poke them and d) skewers stuck into them come out clean. Put onto cake rack (bottoms of tins delightfully sticky and bits of brown sugar haven't let me down - pools of dark toffee!). Allow to cool completely before getting out the bowl of cream . . .

. . . smearing it on top of one cake, then adding the other cake, then admiring it . . .

. . . then eating.

And that, my friends, is an added benefit of the Tia Maria experiment.

The Tia Maria & Cream Experiment

Many years ago I read New Scientist's book "Does Anything Eat Wasps?", one of the questions in which was about an interesting reaction between the liqueur Tia Maria and the thin layer of cream the reader liked poured on top. If said layer is about 2mm thick and is left to stand for a couple of minutes, the reader said, it forms amazing, strange-shaped cells - what forms these, and where is the energy coming from?

Many years ago I was having a quiet drink with a university friend. I had Baileys, and I'm sure that what she had was Tia Maria and orange juice - or at least, one of those two and something else; but anyway, it tasted like chocolate. A few years after that, I tried that combination and it was absolutely revolting, so plainly I'd remembered something wrong. In fact, I was unlucky enough to acquire a nice big bottle of Tia Maria only to discover I don't actually like it very much - and today it suddenly occurred to me that it might actually serve an excellent scientific purpose!

My first mistake was to just go ahead and pour a layer of cream onto a glass full of Tia Maria without reading the book first. I put far too much cream on, and also poured it in in my usual lumberjack style:

This, on the other hand, is not enough:

It should be about 2mm thick, and poured down the inside of the glass. (In fact they recommend poured off a spoon, but my second method worked just as well.)

Well, the first result - with the much-too-thick cream layer - was interesting; there was a doughnut-shaped area in which the liquid was clearly circulating:

Wondering why it wasn't working, I then made another attempt to find the right book - and finally did, then wished I'd done that first. I tried a lot of repairs on that first glass. I tried to get most of the cream out with a spoon. Nothing really seemed to work, except the formation of a few cool holes like the one in the video above. When I couldn't think of anything else to do, I stuck the spoon in and stirred it all up to see what would happen! Nothing much did, except the formation of five or six darker spots on the surface, arranged in a circle.

I then re-read the instructions again, and filled another wine glass, this time with only a little cream poured as described above. With the first few sprinkles, I noticed an interesting "beach-like" effect. It happened too slowly and subtly for the video to work, but you'll see the dark lines appearing around the edge of the cream, creating two quite different cream-scapes:

Actually I took an awful lot of videos, including one of a tiny white speck which was slowly tumbling over and over itself, a millimetre or two below the surface - but I've restricted myself to two. Below is what happened when I added the correct amount of cream . . .

Curious cells formed, the shape of squishy defrosting onion rings. Tia Maria seemed to be rising up from the middle, and the cream seemed to be sinking at the edges!

Anyway, because I botched the first experiment and because I wanted to fill the glasses adequately, to provide sufficient alcohol, I now have plenty of spare creamy Tia Maria. If nobody turns up fast enough to help me with it, my plan is to make a chocolate cake. The less creamy Tia Maria will be added to the mixture; the creamier samples and spooned-off cream will go into whipped cream, as will a little coffee and some grated chocolate!

Now your mouth's watering too much to think, what's actually going on? It's convection. Not the well-known convection caused by molecules of liquid moving around to transport and diffuse heat, a hot place to a cold place - but convection of concentration. The alcohol from the Tia Maria can diffuse through the cream; when it reaches the surface the surface tension plummets. Surrounding areas with high surface tension draw this liquid towards themselves. As the liquid is displaced, Tia Maria moves upwards to fill it, again reducing the surface tension . . . It's a positive feedback mechanism. So it'll go on as long as the Tia Maria feels like it.

This is a particularly lovely story because the reader asked the question back in 1995, and three scientists from my old foreign exchange university, la Universidad de Granada in Spain, actually investigated this and wrote a scientific paper. What a trial those experiments must have been!

You can read about the science here in the Times, and watch a much better experiment - with single cream and Tia Maria on a plate - on this video. And by the way, one day I really hope to acquire a distinctly better camera. I lost my old one about 18 months ago, in London, I think, and have been cursing myself ever since.

(P.S. Did you notice the coaster? All right, here you go. "Rooster" to you folks across the pond . . .)

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

A different sort of sine qua non: Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

My post yesterday was about devoted supporters of astronomers, who had a quiet role in an astronomer's discovery or at any rate their ability and inspiration. This morning I was goaded by Marcus Chown - who I couldn't possibly ignore! - into writing about an astronomer herself. She's one I've already written about on the Galaxy Zoo Forum and for She is an Astronomer; this is a copy of the latter, which was written back in October. Marcus Chown tweeted: "My mission in life is to get Cecilia Payne Gaposhkin the recognition she deserves!" And she certainly deserves a lot more than she ever had. So she can go here, too.

Cecilia Payne as pictured on She is an Astronomer.

The Feature of this weekend is the story of one of my favourite historical astronomers, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who is profiled in on our main page here.

I first read about her quite by accident. She made a crucial discovery about the Sun and all stars, which paved the way to realising how stars burn: that they, unlike the Earth, are made mostly of hydrogen. The experts on stars in her day did not believe her until other scientists began to turn up the same results. This was nothing unusual in her life: she studied at Cambridge but could not earn a degree, because they were not given to women; and the same thing happened in America when she completed her doctorate a few years later. Yet she was never put off, and made huge contributions to astronomy throughout her life. Karen Masters, who heads Galaxy Zoo's "She is an Astronomer" project, wrote this for me:

Her career was littered with small frustrations even given her early seminal work (for which any man would have been feted), but she never seemed to think it mattered. She is quoted as saying: "I simply went on plodding, rewarded by the beauty of the scenery towards an unexpected goal."

I first found out about her whilst reading Arthur Miller's "Empire of the Stars", a biography of Chandrasekhar and the long-disbelieved concepts of black holes, and about fights and put-downs between scientists who, he says, "find themselves in thrall to their intellectual endeavours with a degree of intensity and competitiveness that can exact a high psychological toll . . . [so] sometimes act and react in ways which may seem inexplicable to lesser human beings." That's another story. Although this biography states how unkind and sometimes dishonest Eddington could be to other scientists, he was kind to young Cecilia, an undergraduate at Cambridge starting in 1919:

. . . Cecilia Payne recalled how rude the eminent physicist Ernest Rutherford was to her. He often began his lectures, in which she was usually the sole woman in the audience, by looking her straight in the eye and uttering the word, "Ladies", followed by a long pause, ". . . and gentlemen." Rutherford's daughter, Eileen, a friend of hers, told Payne that Rutherford . . . had said to her, "She isn't interested in you, my dear. She's just interested in me." Payne was so offended that she gave up physics and switched to astronomy, a field that had attracted her ever since hearing Eddington lecture. Eddington immediately set her a problem on the structure of stars and was very helpful to her.

I felt like going back in time and telling her not to bother about such pettishness, until I recalled that Rutherford would probably have been the man who, effectively, decided her future - and would not see her scientific ability as a reason to allow her to achieve anything, or even to let her voice be heard. I'm not telling you this to whinge about someting that happened 90-odd years ago, but to show encouragement to anyone who's feeling the same sort of thing now - and, for those who aren't, to show how much things have, on the whole, improved since then.

The Sun, which Cecilia Payne discovered is composed mostly of hydrogen - taken from this interesting link about stars' energy.

Payne's discovery was essentially applying new theories to the Sun's spectrum: its unique signature of light, certain wavelengths of which are dimmed or exaggerated by cool and hot atoms respectively. But this only shows their presence or absence. In 1920, while Payne was still at Cambridge, Megnad Saha worked out how to calculate the abundances of each element, and the theory was completed by Arthur Milne and Ralph Fowler, also at Cambridge.

Payne, later Payne-Gaposchkin when she married, appears on and off in Miller's book. She appears in a similar vein - not an individual story, like Einstein, but a crucial part of so many larger ones - in Marcus Chown's wonderful "The Magic Furnace", where he effectively picks up the next part of her story:

Cecilia Payne had become fascinated by the problem of decoding the message in starlight while still an undergraduate at Cambridge. However, she was forced to go to America to pursue the problem because of the exclusion of women from British astronomy. Payne enrolled for a doctorate at Radcliffe College, which was on the doorstep of Harvard Observatory, the home of the world's richest collection of stellar spectra. She quickly set about applying Milne and Fowler's method to some of the Harvard spectra, obtaining her first results in 1925. Those results contained a bombshell.

Some of the most prominent lines in the solar spectrum were due to the lightest element, hydrogen. This was unexpected, because Payne's calculations indicated that, at the temperature of the sun's surface, only a minuscule fraction of all hydrogen atoms should be in the necessary state to produce hydrogen lines. The only reasonable explanation was that this fraction must still represent a very substantial numbre of atoms. In other words, hydrogen atoms must be extraordinarily abundant on the sun. Similar logic applied to the second lightest element, helium. In fact, Payne's calculations seemed to be implying that the two lightest elements made up an astonishing 98% of the mass of the sun!

This was surprising because astronomers had, for centuries, simply assumed that the Sun was made of iron - even Eddington's bestseller, "The Internal Constitution of the Stars", published in 1926 and still a classic today, makes that assumption. Until the discovery of spectroscopy, scientists had no reason to realise that the proportion of the elements on Earth (i.e. mostly iron, silicon, oxygen, etc.) was any different in the rest of the Universe.

Chown continues:

It was too incredible to be true. In her doctoral thesis, Payne called the result "spurious". She even went so far, in a scientific journal, as to declare, "The abundance of both hydrogen and helium in stars is improbably high and is almost certainly not real." In rejecting what would one day go down as her greatest discovery, Payne was heavily influenced by Henry Norris Russell, the American astronomer who had discovered red giants . . .

Nevertheless, Russell was eventually forced to admit he had made a mistake. By 1929, the evidence for the super-abundance of hydrogen,in particular, was overwhelming . . . A hydrogen sun also resolved a major problem with Eddington's theory [i.e. that an iron sun, to shine as powerfully as the Sun does, would have to be an incredible 40 million degrees in temperature! Eddington, at first, did not believe Payne either.] . . .

The discovery by Payne . . . had implications for beyond the sun . . . [it] . . . indicated that hydrogen and helium were the most common elements in the entire universe.

Not a minor discovery by any means! But because Payne's results were ignored until more came along, from male scientists, she missed her glory. Nevertheless, some of her colleagues did their best to fight or circumvent the system for her. Harlow Shapley, for instance, specially created the Astronomy Department at Radcliffe, because the Physics Department did not allow women to receive PhDs. (The title of her thesis was "Stellar Atmospheres, A Contribution to the Observational Study of High Temperature in the Reversing Layers of Stars". Otto Struve said that it was "undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy".) Shapley also kept her as a "technical assistant", an underpaid position beyond which women could not rise, though in practice she was a working scientist. She was awarded the title of "Astronomer" in 1938; in 1956 she was finally allowed to be called a "Professor"; and, eventually, was the first woman ever to head the department.

A long struggle, but not unsuccessful, so I write this as a message to all of you not to be put off even if things take a long time! Her later work included: high-luminosity stars and the structure of the Milky Way; and variable stars - cataloguing, with her students, over 1,250,000, and then another 2,000,000 in the Magellanic Clouds.

Mira, a variable star, the yellow star just between the two clumps of trees. This picture is from Astronomy Picture of the Day; go there and you can move your mouse over it to see the diagram.

Karen, mentioned above, found me a lovely blog article about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin which is worth a read; and, Googling around, I found parts of her autobiography available to read online (with lengthy introductions from people who knew her; you'll have to scroll down a long way to get to her own words! The book's on my Christmas list though!). Of arriving in America, besides amusing anecdotes about the freer culture she encountered there, and her women friends' amiable mirth over her constrained talk and dress, she writes these beautiful lines:

When I arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I had crossed a gulf wider than the Atlantic Ocean. I had left the world of dreams and stepped into reality. Abstract study was a thing of the past; now I moved among the stars.

Also, you may have been wondering why, since Harvard was such a temple of spectra, an Englishwoman was the one who made use of it. It had long been a place where women could do quite respectable work they enjoyed, and Payne, rather than criticising the culture, simply tells us of its differences in a very wise way:

Miss Cannon [Annie Jump Cannon, who headed the department and left an important legacy] was extraordinarily kind to me. She might well have resented a young and inexperienced student who was preumptuous enough to attempt to interpret the spectra that had been her own reserve for many years. She never gave a sign of doing so. "Do you realise," Shapley later asked me, "how easily Miss Cannon could have chucked a monkey wrench into the works for you?" With my arrogance of youth I had not even thought of it; I had even permitted myself to wonder how anyone who had worked with stellar spectra so long could have refrained from drawing any conclusions from them. She was a pure observer, she did not attempt to interpret. As I look back I see how her work has outlasted my early efforts at interpretation.

The Large Cloud of Magellan, from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Helen has just started a topic about how to get the IAU resolution - to support and encourage female astronomers - to work. To me, this story seems to be not about methods but people: those who are kind; those who accept others who are different, as well as different scientific approaches (Cecilia Payne herself included); those who take on difficult tasks and are willing to break with tradition; those who expect others to achieve highly and set them challenging things to work on; those who look far. In other words, openness, goodwill, and expectations. That's my take, anyway. Please post your ideas.

P.S. From the Galaxy Zoo post - some stars, posted by Citisue and Sophie.

Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Credit: Sloan Digital Sky Survey.

Now who shall I write about?

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Some sine qua nons of astronomy

The She's an Astronomer forum is a bit quiet at the moment, so I thought I'd share a little research with you that I wrote up this morning here as well.

Tuesday 12th January 2010: It couldn't have happened without them

It often seems to me that scientists are portrayed as loners, making their discoveries in the solitude of the ivory tower. I expect this is the case for some; but there are others who worked very closely with other people, or were able to do their work because of loving and dedicated support from someone else. It's been in my mind for a while to write a little about a few of these someone elses, because it seems to me that they shouldn't be forgotten. And some of us are just not cut out to be loners - and that is no failing.

Margrethe Bohr (1890-1984)

Niels Bohr was one of the greatest physicists of all time. He wasn't an astronomer, but the story of atoms and stars is closely interwoven, so astronomy would never have been the same without his work - for example, Eddington's studies of red giants and, in the end, all stars, needed to include Bohr's representations of atoms and electrons.

Bohr originally hired Margrethe Norlund to type up his numerous letters and papers, but they married in 1912 and had six sons. (Tragically, the eldest, Christian, died in a sailing accident and the youngest, Harald, spent many years in a mental hospital as a result of a childhood illness, and died aged about 10. But the others did well, and one of them, Aage, also became a Nobel winning physicist.) Margrethe continued to do Niels's reams of typing, which must have been no mean task: letters and papers flew around Europe as many scientists became involved in the the development of quantum mechanics and new understanding about atoms. But she was far more involved than that: she wasn't a scientist, but Niels discussed his work in great depth with her and used her as a soundboard for his ideas. The Danish government honoured the Bohrs by moving them into a grand residence, which other scientists visited regularly, and Margrethe was known as "the Queen" and "the perfect hostess".

There is a hilarious anecdote from the mid-1920's, in which Heisenberg and Schrödinger's theories of the atom were not yet reconciled and clashing badly. Schrödinger had developed his famous equation which cast electrons as waves, with no need for Heisenberg's matrix mechanics and the quantum jumping on which he and Bohr had been working. Bohr invited Schrödinger to Copenhagen, and argued with him so politely yet so insistently that Schrödinger took to his bed with a fever, during which Bohr continued to argue relentlessly and Margrethe had to nurse him back to health!

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

It is always William Herschel who is remembered for the discovery of Uranus - but his sister Caroline was no slight astronomer herself. She discovered at least five comets, including Herschel-Rigollet which is partly named in her honour, and rediscovered and confirmed several others. She also confirmed the existence of M110, which had been depicted in a drawing but not named by Charles Messier. She and Mary Somerville were the first female honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and she was the first female (and last until Vera Rubin) to be awarded their Gold Medal.

Caroline's elder brother had come to England to acquire a position in music, and he invited Caroline to join him and gave her several singing lessons (she was such a good singer that she was asked to perform at the Birmingham festival, but declined). She became fascinated with astronomy when William took it up, and for sixteen years they worked as a partnership. She was, she said, "much hindered in my practice by my help being continually wanted in the execution of the various astronomical contrivances" - but she must have been very devoted all the same. She kept his house, fed him sandwiches at the telescope, performed long calculations relating to their observations, and was once seriously injured by getting caught on a telescope hook. In 1795, William built her a telescope of her own. Later in life she wrote the Catalogue of Stars to update John Flamsteed's work and help William, who needed an up-to-date star index but didn't want to write one; and after William's death Caroline wrote a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John Herschel.

Margaret Huggins (1848-1915)

William and Margaret Huggins were wealthy, capable amateur astronomers. They sold off the family business and built a telescope outside a house in Tulse Hill, just outside London, away from the smog. Their great contribution was stellar spectroscopy. Fraunhofer had catalogued over 500 dark absorption lines in the solar spectrum, and Kirchhoff had finally found out what they were by comparing them to bright emission lines from burning substances: bright and dark lines were particular wavelengths of light being emitted or absorbed by gases. It was therefore possible to tell what types of material were present in a substance if you burnt it - or in stars.

William and Margaret pioneered this new science, recording the spectra of hundreds of stars and jointly publishing papers and the Atlas of Representative Stelar Spectra. William analysed various "nebulae" - many of which were not nebulae at all, but galaxies outside our own (but that's another story) - and discovered that they differed in chemical composition: for example, real nebulae from galaxies made of stars. Margaret, much younger than William, found superheated oxygen in the Orion Nebula (see the tour of Orion!), which was previously thought to be a solid. She once left a note for him: "Dear William: the spectrum you took last night was a bit awful - please try harder tonight"!

They were also helped with the analysis by their neighbour, William Allen Miller, a chemist. They went on studying until they were no longer able. Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest quote John Meadows as telling them: "There's a nice story - or, perhaps, a semi-tragic story - of them sitting in their old age, hand in hand, watching their precious telescope being dismantled because they had become too old to use it."

Charlene and Charon

In 1978, an American astronomer named James Christy was observing Pluto nearly 50 years after its discovery, and was surprised to find that it seemed to be pear-shaped. Others thought it was simply a poor recording because the plate must have been moved - but the stars showed no such elongation. Christy realised he was seeing two objects, and that in fact this planet (as it was known then, though even its discoverer, at the time, didn't really feel it should have been a planet!) had a moon. As its discoverer, Christy had the right to name it if someone else didn't come up with something first, and S/1978 P 1 really wasn't that catchy. Christy wanted to name the new moon after his wife, Charlene, known as "Char". But this did not accord with convention (Herschel had wanted to name Uranus "George" in honour of the King!) - so Christy looked up the traditional mythology and found the name Charon, who took dead souls across the river to Pluto's kingdom. It wasn't until 1986 that this name was accepted, and today it's still pronounced as an "sh" rather than "k" as is the normal, in Charlene's honour.

I couldn't find any information on Charlene herself, but she must have been a great inspiration to her husband! She told Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest: "Many husbands promise their wives the moon, but my husband got it for me".

Many thanks to various Internet sites, especially Wiki.

Inspirations: The History of Astronomy by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest; Physics and Beyond by Werner Heisenberg; and Copenhagen by Michael Frayn.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Hundreds gather in mass protest against global warming

From Zeno001, a Twitpic (click to enlarge!)

Utterly adorable. I'll let you know where this was and who made them all when or if I find out!

Snowy Pictures from East to West

Not often we see Britain looking like this, is it? From Nasa's Terra satellite on Thursday.

I've just got back to Wales from London. She is an Astronomer had a meeting on Wednesday, about our website and an upcoming conference in April - of which, I hope, there will be a lot more news soon! The meeting took place at the RAS, a truly lovely building with even lovelier receptionists who find milk and biscuits and take great care of visitors. It was the first time I wasn't hurrying through to a lecture, so I got a good look around. There's a little room on the ground floor just being the reception, where there's a big complicated coffee machine, a million leaflets, comfy chairs, and cushions whose stripes distinctly resemble Jupiter. More intriguingly, there are two little brass instruments with a plaque which explains that they were donated and their purpose isn't 100% clear, but they may have been used in navigation. Upstairs is the conference room, whose walls are books upon books upon books! Helen and I both arrived very early, not being sure what the trains would be up to, she in the most amazing welly boots. The ground was already alternately white and slippery, but the skies opened once more while the meeting progressed. This was the courtyard afterwards:

That evening I also chanced to walk past University College London, whose courtyard also looked pretty cool - in both senses of the word!

(Taken from my phone, whose lens I believe was rather wet. The snowflakes were actually coming down then, but sadly it didn't pick them up. If only I hadn't lost my digital camera the summer before last.)

The day after this, Thursday, I spent on the train between London and west Wales. And had far too much fun snapping more pictures out of the window. The quality, especially of the foreground and where there are reflections on the window, is not great - but I was pleasantly surprised by some of them. Windows reflected, tracks covered . . .

Near Reading, if I remember right:

Didcot Power Station:

As much as engineering works on railway lines are a pain in the neck, I had to feel sorry for this brave guy:

Getting near Bristol now . . .

. . . where I did my best to zoom in on one of the bridges over the Severn.

I wish our train could have gone over a bridge. Not only are bridges and the view below them beautiful, but a freight train broke down in the tunnel ahead of us and kept us sitting around for an hour. The nice train people offered us all complimentary coffee, but not cappuccino.

Near Ferryside, south Wales, is a beautiful estuary - one day I must get off the train there and take some more pictures. Sometimes the tide is in, when it's as if the train floats along the edge of the sea; other times it's out and there is this vast expanse of flatness and windy space. By now, sadly, the light was dimming and very few photographs showed anything - but I hope that even the fuzziness that follows can capture something of that finger-numbing wet openness, so silent yet so full of life:

And to be fair, I also found the sunset rather mesmerizing:

Snowy fields on the other side of the estuary, with the last camera-friendly light:

I was held up by a total of two and a half hours that day - none of the delays, incidentally, were a result of the snow at all. I walked part of the way home - steep hills, stuck cars and slippery roads didn't make picking me up from the station any easy task. Happily, it was an exceptionally clear night and Orion was just rising in front of me. My feet crunched deliciously through the snow, deepest and best for walking right in the middle of our quiet, unlit single-lane road home. Even the Milky Way was faintly visible, more a ghostly-speckled presence than a glittering reality, yet just as gorgeous - running across the sky in exactly the direction I was walking. I'm so glad I hang about with astronomers most of the time. What if I had just huddled beneath my woolly hat, resented the cold and darkness, and forgotten to look up to the Universe?

Monday, 4 January 2010

Congratulations Stellar190: Young Astronomy website

Just a quick break from a long Christmassy silence to announce a new website: Young Astronomers, one of whose new writers is Stellar. As they explain, it's still under construction, but I'm looking forward to seeing what they come up with. So far they have had two brief reviews of 2009, its achievements, and like in the meeting last month a strong emphasis on how the project isn't over: "In no way is all the astronomy fun of the IYA “over”, just the official celebration, we will still continue with all of your favorite projects, and surely the astronomical community will continue to grow!" And today I saw their first article written by a young editor: Cities of Stars by Stellar.

I'm delighted to see more and more online material available for young people, involving them as well as informing. Recently, someone wrote on the Galaxy Zoo Forum: "No one takes 14 year olds seriously" - meaning he or she did not expect their input to be accurate or valuable. It was fortunate that back in the 1930's somebody did expect just that: a young boy named Patrick Moore had been left in charge of an observatory for many nights, had discovered several new craters on the Moon, and had written up his findings in a paper. He submitted it and it was accepted for publication, but he thought he should tell them that he was not exactly ancient. The reply came back: "I note that you are only 14 years old. I don't see that this is relevant."

A few days ago I was in despair at the headline "Boys aged three 'must work more'", and would like to suggest two things to the government. Firstly I suggest that they personally tell every three-year-old boy in the country to work more, and stick around to see that he does. Secondly, I wish to challenge the meaning of "the gender gap". I know this sounds a bit rich from someone very into She's an Astronomer, but most of these barriers are probably only there because children are forced along by age, not by readiness or individual strengths and weaknesses. This is not only cruel, but it shores up more problems later: for instance, someone who isn't good at maths but terrific at (or at least has potential in) writing, or vice versa, or some other combination, may be denied all opportunities because the one hoop they haven't jumped through holds them up. It doesn't occur to teachers to let children who don't do brilliantly at exams try out the extras (or rather, they fear that instead of giving the poor kids a break and some self-esteem, such activities would only "be a burden" and "waste valuable exam preparation time".) I wonder how many more young Patrick Moores we're losing because they learnt to write their name at six rather than at three?

In citizen science, there are no barriers. Age does not matter: a teenager can work alongside a grandparent. I didn't get into it until I was 25, but because it wasn't commandeered by targets, that matters not at all. I see no reason not only why the school genius can't make a terrific contribution to science communication or to astronomy, but the average or bored pupil as well. Astronomy, and science done rather than memorized and examined, is for everybody. So well done to all these wonderful new websites coming out, and may they reach anyone who's ready!