astronomy

RIP Patrick Moore

December 9, 2012 by

Very few public figures have influenced me over the years – Patrick Moore was an exception.

As a friend of my aunt, he wrote to me when I was 8, sending letters and copies of his books. Being on Arran, the skies were dark, and even the Milky Way visible on a clear night.

Fast-forward 10 years and I’m studying Astronomy at Glasgow University, then working at Jodrell Bank on Radio Astrophysics.

Fast-forward another 10, and I’m working at an early start-up, Virgin Net, where one evening we held an “webchat” with Sir Patrick. We then went for dinner.

Fast-forward another 10, and I’m in discussion with Sky at Night magazine about writing a feature, and separately with Chris Lintott on related projects.

I know his enthusiasm for Astronomy was felt by many of my peers.

Thank you. Goodnight, and RIP.

And now, go outside and look at the stars.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20657939

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/dec/09/sir-patrick-moore

http://boingboing.net/2012/12/09/sir-patrick-moore-1923-2012.html

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ISEA 2012

May 29, 2012 by


I’ll be speaking at the Eighteenth International Symposium on Electronic Art, ISEA2012 Albuquerque.

Machine Wilderness is a symposium and series of events exploring the discourse of global proportions on the subject of art, technology and nature. The ISEA symposium is held every year in a different location around the world, and has a 30-year history of significant acclaim.

Acoustic Cosmology will be included in the “Radical Cosmologies” track.

Update: I’m speaking on “The Utterance of a Cosmological Model” in Hotel Albuquerque: Sandia Room at 2:30pm.

The “Radical Cosmologies” theme will gaze at the universe and question our place in it. It will explore a wide range of creative perspectives and practices around the cultural, scientific and philosophical possibilities of contemporary astronomy. This theme will incorporate various forms of media, written word, performance and installation, as well as workshops, community-based actions, lectures and online projects to offer viewers fresh interpretations and experiences of cultural myths, indigenous histories and contemporary science.

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A sneak preview of some of the work I’ll be presenting on Sunday.

Below is a radio-image taken by ALMA of the “Antennae Galaxies” colliding. We have transformed the image-cube data, in which each pixel represents an electromagnetic radio spectrum, into a sonic spectrum. By clicking the image and moving your cursor around you can “play” a spectrum of the colliding galaxies.

Spend some time moving slowly around the red(redshifted) areas – there is a surprising richness to the harmonics for such a simple sonification.

Note: this loads a 62MB data-cube before displaying (still working on a compressed version) … it could take many minutes to appear if you are on a slow connection – it did take these photons 70 million years to reach us, so please be patient while they go the last few bit-miles!

To view & listen, I recommend you open this link in a new tab while you are reading this post.

To get a sense of the picture at optical wavelengths, here’s the HST image .

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“On 12 April 1961 Yuri Gagarin became the first human in outer space and the first to orbit the Earth. 2011 sees the fiftieth anniversary of that event…”

As part of my ongoing work on Binary Dust, I am speaking at Heavenly Discourses on Sunday 16th October 16:45 – 18:00. PANEL: Music

I’ll be presenting new work (including sounds and pictures derived from ALMA) that my great collaborators, Andrew Newsam and Julie Freeman, have helped me with (thank you!).

Here’s the abstract of my paper. I am delighted to have been accepted – esp. as I’m one of the few/the only non-institutional presenters at the conference.

The utterance of a cosmological model?

A conjoining of languages, Acoustic Cosmology is an attempt to describe our audible worlds – a 21st century progression of the music of the spheres – a narrative of acoustic sculpture within n-dimensional space. With no intentional stance on sound as a cultural construct or phenomenology, we openly explore links between cosmology and music, using the language of mathematics and sonic art.

Building on the works Trevor Wishart and Jean-Pierre Luminet, and developed by professional astronomers and musicians, we question and connect the fabric of these non-verbal languages.

Using cosmology and sonic art as its basis, this paper will provide a journey of discovery – a basis for discussion in the junction between music and astronomy, opening up new methods of comprehending scale, connection, depth and complexity. Sound examples and visuals will be included in the presentation.

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Those are my stars…

September 25, 2011 by

Calling Virgin Galactic: “if we could get our political leaders to have a summit meeting in space, life on Earth would be markedly different”

Alex Evans reflects “during a break in an all-day meeting of senior policymakers at the United Nations, on the subject of ‘global sustainability’. Know what? The room had no windows”

On this excellent snippet from and interview with Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell:

“Every two minutes, a picture of the Earth, Moon and Sun, and a 360 degree panorama of the heavens, appeared in the spacecraft window as I looked. And from my training in astronomy at Harvard and MIT, I realized that the matter in our universe was created in star systems, and thus the molecules in my body, and in the spacecraft, and in my partners’ bodies were prototyped or manufacted in some ancient generation of stars. And I had the recognition that we’re all part of the same stuff, we’re all one. Now in modern quantum physics you’d call that interconnectedness. It triggered this experience of saying wow, those are my stars, my body is connected to those stars. And it was accompanied by a deep ecstatic experience, which continued every time I looked out of the window, all the way home.”

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Binary Dust …

December 10, 2010 by

Well, it’s taken a little while to pull together, but Binary Dust is now live. Hope you enjoy.

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The Science and Technology Facilities Council in the UK has managed to create a terrible situation which could destroy fundamental research across the country. This would have a devastating impact on not just the lives of people who have dedicated themselves to their fields, and not just to the UK’s reputation, but would be a massive loss for everyone.

One institution, Jodrell Bank (where I used to work), is listed as “threatened” (BBC News), and this story a great showcase for what’s at stake.  What’s really at stake isn’t even visible, so I’m going to use JB to give tiny insights into what this could mean for a broad community of brilliant minds and projects, and what we might lose that we can’t imagine and can’t measure.

In true British fashion, Jodrell is an example of how spectacular scientific endeavour is completely under-represented and unappreciated in the UK.  We have a world-class, thought-leading, inspirational, world-changing, unique facility, and it’s not considered as an imperative to sustain.

Jodrell (with MERLIN) is as powerful as the Hubble Space Telescope. It has been for over 15 years. (I believe Nasa spend more on marketing the HST than Jodrell’s entire budget).

I went to visit some friends at Jodrell a few years back and as they we updating me on some of the progress a few nuggets dropped into the conversation – like the fact that more data was flowing across the MERLIN network than the WHOLE of the UK internet. One of the engineers showed me their own self-build multi-gigabit router (because nothing commercial was quite cutting it).

Jodrell was instrumental in Apollo missions. It was the only instrument in the Western Hemisphere that could track Sputnik. It led to the discovery of Pulsars. It helps us map the entire universe. It finds new physics.

The people who work in this field, using instruments like Jodrell,  help not only to literally uncover the mysteries of “life, the universe and everything”, but to create fundamentally new technologies, push boundaries and inspire generations to drive innovation – they do this as a side-effect to their daily work. One colleague wrote 100,000 lines of PERL to help with data processing tasks, so they could carry out their own astrophysics research.  I was part of an international team of about 10 people managing about 1 million lines of Fortran that carried out data and image processing.

While I was there (in 1993-95) I helped to set up their first website. We did this in our lunch breaks, as a means to an end – helping to share information.

Of course it’s not just Jodrell, it’s all the fundamental research that we use to fuel  our innovation, which ultimately fuels our economy, and could help us address the many global issues that we face as a species.

To find ourselves in a situation where this level of innovation is threatened is, at best, atrocious, at worst immoral.

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This year is the 50th anniversary of Jodrell Bank.

Today is also a landmark day for Jodrell Bank – the whole science team are moving from on-site, to Manchester University. While this is probably very practical, I can’t help feeling sad that this unique and historic research establishment is dramatically shifting its identity.

I worked at Jodrell from 1994-1995 and thoroughly enjoyed it: 120 scientists in the middle of a field in deepest Cheshire. Remarkably “British” Science – on my first day I was shown around to one of the “workshops” (very slightly more advanced than a garden shed) where someone was building an amplifier for the main dish, and cooling it to under 20 degrees Kelvin, making it one of the quietest amplifiers on Earth.

In another room, years later, someone was building their own data router, to carry data at 30 Gigabits per second, since the best commercial ones couldn’t come anywhere close

…today MERLIN‘s seven telescopes ship 30Gbps, each, to a huge computer cluster at the main facility that processes 150-200Gbps of data in real time – making it one of the most powerful computers on Earth.

The history of Jodrell Bank and the Lovell Telescope is vast: it’s first official task was to identify and track Sputnik – it was the only instrument the West had (at the time) that could do so.

Pulsars and Quasars are amongst the discoveries in which Jodrell was the catalyst. The Cosmic Microwave Background, Masers, Gravitational Lenses, and myriad others are part of the rich mixture of Radio Astronomy research.



Jodrell gets very little mention compared to other facilities, unlike its US counterpart the VLA, or the Hubble Space Telescope. The latter is particularly relevant – Jodrell has had equal or better resolution than the HST since before HST launched – and the only reason you don’t know that is because NASA have a $20m “marketing budget” to tell the world. That’s about the same as Jodrell had to upgrade the entire facility.

Jodrell was mentioned a couple of times in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy “… Jodrell Bank looked straight through them — which was a pity because it was exactly the sort of thing they’d been looking for all these years … someone decided it was time for a nice relaxing cup of tea” – and happens to be very true: tea at 11am and 3pm was an unmissable part of the day. Everything stopped.

It was at tea that one of the longest serving members of staff was trying to recall how they’d built some of the 6-bit computers I was trying to re-interpret the data from (“now was bit 3 the weather or the telescope ID?”). I should have kept that envelope…

Last year the Lovell Telescope was nominated the UK’s greatest ‘Unsung Landmark’ in a BBC competition. This only scratches the surface. To me, Jodrell Bank is iconic of an entire country of passionate, brilliant scientists, who get little of no recognition for the spectacular work that they do. At various times, Jodrell has had to justify its existence, which is reasonable for any institution to have to do, but I believe that much of its real value is overlooked….

I am delighted that, 13 years after leaving, I will be going back to hear some of my music (“Binary Dust“) played at the 50th Anniversary celebrations, right in front of the Lovell Telescope dish.

They are also projecting onto the 76m Lovell dish, which should be quite spectacular – it’s at least twice the size of the largest IMAX screen (hope the weather’s good!).

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Jodrell Bank

January 2, 1994 by

I used to work as an Experimental Officer here… doing lots of coding, data processing, and set up their website in ’94.

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