Six Characters in Search of a Blogger

10.7 The Seventh Day: We Are All Made of Stars

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

iya_logo1This week’s selection of characters has covered a fairly broad range of astronomers and astrophysicists: historical, professional and amateur.

As I’ve tried to show, Astronomy is probably the only scientific discipline which is as accessible to a schoolchild as it is to an Ivy League research professor, because ultimately the sky is the same for everybody and changes little over time. The only limiting factor is cost.

Traditionally the level of technical equipment available to the professionals is generally much greater than the average amateur can access.  Whereas amateurs may typically use binoculars or small telescopes ranging from a size of 6 cm at $150 up to 30 cm for $4000 or more, professionals have access to huge telescopes of several meters in size, costing multiple millions of dollars (for example Keck with its dual 10m primary mirrors cost $231 million to build, and $47,000 per night to use at 2002 prices).

But as part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, all that is about to change…

Because currently in beta testing are two exciting new software applications: “Google Sky” and Microsoft “WorldWide Telescope.”  These two free internet-based applications will provide access to photographs and other data recorded from many of the world’s top-level research telescopes.  Google Sky uses a web interface at, and WorldWide Telescope (which is currently a Windows-only application, but will launch a Web 2.0 interface soon) uses one at

Here are examples of Google Sky and WorldWide Telescope:

image from Google Sky

image from Google Sky



image from WorldWide Telescope

image from WorldWide Telescope













WorldWide Telescope is actually a continuation of the TerraServer project (originally formed by computer scientist Jim Gray at Microsoft Research), using the previous databases and infrastructure created for Microsoft Virtual Earth.  It has now been extended to include whole-sky digital maps which in some cases are updated as frequently as every three days (and if you do happen to purchase a “Go-To” telescope, these computer programs can even be used to point your own telescope at what you are seeing on the screen, so you have a live real-time view).

So, why do I think the development of these software programs is important?  Because for the first time since the days of Tycho Brahe and Galileo, the playing field is truly level; and Joe (and Josephine) Average have the same access to high quality astronomy data as professionals.

We are all made of stars, but not many of us take the time to stop and look up at them.  But now, without even owning a telescope, anyone with a computer and internet access can access near-realtime images of the same quality that professional scientists use for their research work.

And to Astronomy, I think that may become just as important as the invention of the telescope itself.

So, that’s it for my week on the blog.  We now return you to your regular programming, already in progress…

-Iain B.

Author’s Comment: What’s Next for NASA under the Obama Administration?


could NASA's Constellation program be in jeopardy under the Obama Administration?

Uh oh, spaghettios: could NASA's Constellation program be in jeopardy under the Obama Administration?

NASA chief Mike Griffin caused a bit of a ruckus several weeks ago when the Obama Administration transition team came a knockin’.  Griffin, whose baby is the Constellation program (which was a direct result of President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration policy in 2004) has gotten very testy during questioning by Obama representatives about the state of the project.  

Check out Dvorak Uncensored’s “NASA resisting Obama efforts to ‘check under the hood’.”   It looks like change may not be such a welcome thing in some government agencies.

And apparently NASA has some competition.  An article on suggests that the incoming Administration has met with “a group of renegade space vehicle designers” who are offering a less expensive alternative to the Constellation project.  This, the Jupiter DIRECT initiative, proposes to recycle parts from the retired Space Shuttle program, thereby saving tens of millions of dollars, as well as trimming years off the timeline for launch.  For a more detailed view on the origins of this “renegade” plan, see David Noland’s great article in Popular Mechanics magazine, “NASA & Its Discontents:  Frustrated Engineers Battle with NASA over the Future of Spaceflight.”

Of course, President-Elect Obama has made his discontentment with the Bush Administration’s position on NASA quite public.  In a letter to Congressional leaders in September 2008, he outlined steps Congress should take to preserve the United States’ investment in the International Space Station, as well as called for preservation of the Space Shuttle program beyond 2010 (the proposed year of its retirement) to avoid the U.S. being dependent upon–and paying–Russia for transporting U.S. astronauts aboard Soyuz for some years until a viable NASA alternative was available.

10.6 From India to the Moon: Madhavan Nair (& Vikram Sarabhai)

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

Will this be the next flag we see on the moon?

Will the next person who lands on the moon plant this flag?

The division between astronomy and spaceflight is somewhat arbitrary, considering the astronomical observatories such as Hubble, Sptizer, Chandra-X and the soon-to-be-launched Webb space telescope. For that reason, I hope you’ll give me some license in discussing the following pioneers of the space industry within the context of what is supposed to be an astronomy blog.

Vikram Sarabhai was to the Indian space program what Werner von Braun and Robert H. Goddard were to NASA–that is, an early pioneer in the emerging technical field of rocketry. Although largely unknown in the West, Dr. Sarabhai was the key instigator in the 1960s of all modern Indian space research, for which the Vikram Sarabhai Space Center (India’s main research & development establishment) was posthumously named after his death in 1971.

Vikram Sarabhai, father of the Indian national space program

Vikram Sarabhai, father of the Indian space research

Alhough Dr. Sarabhai is remembered as being the founding father of India’s space research institutes, he was also a strong believer in people.  It is for this reason that he’s being discussed here–because his motivation for space research was not purely scientific, but was based upon a broad belief that by developing satellite technology India could spread knowledge and education even to the furthest reaches of remote Indian villages.

Although he died before that vision could be fully realized, today we can see India’s rapidly developing technological infrastructure as a testament to his grand goals and ideals. However, without belittling Dr. Sarabhai’s achievements, he is not the Indian space pioneer who I really want to discuss today.  That honor falls to Madhavan Nair.

Madhavan Nair, architect of India's moon aspirations

Madhavan Nair, architect of India's Chandrayaan moon program

What is interesting about Madhavan Nair is that he’s not a professor and does not hold a doctorate; he is a big “E” Engineer in the truest sense of the word–his technical background is in rocket engine design, and he was recruited into the space industry straight from his bachelors degree.  And although he was never actually mentored by Dr. Sarabhai (well, not as far as I know anyway), Nair has been the person largely responsible for the realization of India’s satellite program and implementation of Dr. Sarabhai’s vision.  Indeed, Nair is now head of the ISRO–the Indian Space Research Organization (founded by Sarabhai.)

And under Nair’s leadership, India has begun its first steps towards a moon landing: Chandrayaan-1, which launched in October 2008, is the first in a series of lunar missions planned by ISRO.  The probe is currently in orbit around the moon, performing a two year mission surveying the lunar surface in more detail than any previous international effort, and includes NASA payload scanning for ice and minerals that might be useful to future manned missions.

Chandrayaan-1 liftoff

Chandrayaan-1 liftoff

It’s probably most famous as “the probe that proved NASA landed on the moon”–at least if you believe the tabloids.  But actually, although Chandrayaan-1 overflew and photographed the Apollo landing sites late last year, its camera resolution is not sufficient to actually see Eagle and the other lunar landers–so it’s not quite time to debunk the conspiracy theorists yet!  

But no doubt that time will come:  Nair and ISRO have much grander designs for future missions, including a manned moon landing by 2020.  For now, however, the immediate plans are to build Chandrayaan-II, a research mission to land a rover on the moon for automated mineral prospecting.

So the race for space is certainly hotting up again, but this time driven by the frontiers of new research and the ambition of emerging superpowers.  The U.S. and Russia are no longer the only players in the game:  China has made it’s stake clear.  And thanks to the help of visionaries like Nair (and Sarabhai), India may well be the next force to be reckoned with.

10.5 Tycho Brahe: Great Thinker, Great Drinker
January 16, 2009, 4:45 pm
Filed under: People Looking at the Stars | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

Tycho Brahe

Tycho Brahe

OK, so 16th Century astronomer Tycho Brahe isn’t exactly a contemporary character – he predates Galileo by at least 50 years or so and is much less well known. But he was an interesting chap all the same, and led quite a colorful life.

For example, not only did he get drunk and belligerent enough during his college Christmas party to challenge another student to a fight (I’m sure we’ve all been there, done that); but he actually refused to back down in the cold light of sobriety.  He went through with the sword duel, in which he lost both the challenge and his nose (his challenger, quite literally, having cut off his nose to spite his face.)

Undaunted, Brahe just got himself a new one.  Depending on whose account you believe, he had a prosthetic nose made out of silver, gold or copper.  But this rather unorthodox facial bling doesn’t seem to have done his reputation or his status in society much harm, because he was soon wining and dining with the royalty of Denmark (which included much of Scandanavia at the time) and lightening their purses in the process.

Brahe follows in the footsteps of ancient civilisations such as the Egyptian pharaohs, in managing to do something which is almost impossible today: he persuaded the government of Denmark to contribute  a significant percentage of the country’s assets (1% of the GDP) towards a science project.  Whereas previous civilizations had invested their resources into building pyramids to make their permanent place in history (although it has to be said that the Mayans in particular were excellent astronomers too), for Brahe his legacy was to be the building of the first modern observatory.  (As a comparison to more recent US history, the entire Apollo moon program was about 0.4% of US GDP at its 1969 peak.  So for any country to dedicate 1% of GDP is a huge investment, especially for a project which provides no real tangible results to the economy.)

Unfortunately for Brahe, the telescope had not yet been invented, but he still managed to lay the foundations of modern astronomical science by the observations he made through careful triangulation of the planets during the year.  As just one example, he validated most of the Copernican model of the solar system (i.e., with our sun at the center of certain planetary orbits) although he still put Earth as an exception to that rule (more for religious than scientific reasons–Galileo was to discover the perils of heliocentrism vis-à-vis the Church some years later.)  I won’t bore you with the details, but be assured that Brahe “did the math” and proved the orbits of the planets to a very accurate degree.  Not surprisingly, many students from the European Continent came to Brahe for instruction in astronomy.

He was also known for being an eccentric host.  Often throwing parties in his family seat, Knutstorp Castle, Brahe had in residence two rather unique members of his household that doubled as entertainment.  First, he had in his employ a little person/dwarf by the name of Jepp, who was his jester and believed by Brahe to be clairvoyant; apparently, Jepp would sit beneath the table during dinner parties, from whence Brahe would bring him out to make pronouncements and predictions for his guests.  In addition, Brahe was also famous for owning a pet moose.  (Which stayed in the house with him.) Unfortunately, after indulging in too much ale one night, the said moose fell down the stairs of Brahe’s castle, broke a leg, and ultimately died.

But what may well be the lasting thing to remember about Brahe–beyond his prosthetic nose and the alcoholic tendencies he and his pet moose shared–was that he proved that high-tech equipment isn’t always necessary to make solid contributions to science.  That tradition continues even today, as amateur astronomers are making some of the most prolific contributions to new minor planet and asteroid discoveries.

In the end, though, the booze was Brahe’s downfall–at least partly.  The legend is that, not wanting to offend the royal court during a banquet, he delayed leaving the king’s table for several hours, the result being a bladder infection.  The king’s apothecaries treated him with a compound containing mercury, and rather than cure his ills it finished him off.  (So he went down drinking.  There are worse ways to go.)

So here’s to Tycho Brahe : great thinker, great drinker.  Not a bad epitaph I’d say.

10.4 Weighing the Galaxies: Professor Alyssa Goodman

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

The Tarantula Nebula, NASA/JPL, Spitzer Space Telescope

Photo: The Tarantula Nebula, NASA/JPL, Spitzer Space Telescope

So far we’ve talked about how the heavens were first discovered, how the universe is catalogued, and research into fundamental particles and energy.  But how do the very small subatomic particles combine to become very large galaxies, their stars, planets, and ultimately you and I?

As well as the individual stars which are easily viewed by the naked eye or with small telescopes, there are much dimmer areas of the sky where new stars are continually being born.  These are huge clouds of inter-stellar dust (known as nebula) where individual particles of matter coalesce into stars, formed under tremendous temperatures and pressures caused as they collect under the force of their own gravity.

This, the origin of star formation, is the big question that Professor Alyssa Goodman of Harvard University, as part of the COMPLETE project, has made a career of studying–by mapping the sky on the very large scales only possible with the Spitzer Space Telescope.  Whereas the Hubble telescope gets all the glory for its visually stunning astrophotography, the Spitzer does its scientific measuring in infra-red (or ‘heat’ as we more commonly refer to that area of the spectrum) across much larger areas of the sky.

Of course, trying to image vast areas of the sky all at once generates a huge amount of data, and one of the areas in which Professor Goodman has made real advances is the ability to process that data down to something much more meaningful and scientifically relevant than just the raw numbers.  For example, by looking at radiated heat rather visible light, Spitzer can zoom in to look deep inside the dust clouds and provide a much more accurate assessment of the amount of matter involved in star formation. And as another trick, by “zooming out” on the collected data and looking at temperatures across the sky (essentially, averaging out the high and low readings) Professor Goodman and her colleagues in COMPLETE can actually use the aggregated data to “weigh” whole galaxies.

And science doesn’t get much bigger than weighing galaxies.

To hear Professor Goodman talk more about her work and its impact, tune in to a Live webcast at 7:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time  on Thursday 15th Jan, “The WorldWide Telescope: Astronomy of the Future”

10.3 Former Boy Band Member + Astrophysics = Dr. Brian Cox

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

Dr. Brian Cox

Dr. Brian Cox

A personal ad for Dr. Brian Cox might look something like this:  

“Good looking former member of successful boy-band seeks fellow Ph.D. for cozy nights in studying particle physics, the origins of life, the universe and everything.”

We seem to be seeing a lot of Dr. Cox in TV and online media recently. Apple used him to promote the use of Macbook Pro laptops for “serious power computing users,” and he’s a regular on Discovery/PBS/National Geographic documentaries. But those are far from being his first forays into the limelight.

“Things Can Only Get Better” was the song title of what was perhaps his most well-known previous public work, as a keyboardist in the 90s boy band D:Ream–famous for its rather questionable punctuation practices and its slightly more than a one-hit-wonder status in the UK.  (The “Things Can Only Get Better” track was used in 1997 as the UK Labour Party conference anthem, when Labour Party beat the incumbent Conservatives and brought Tony Blair into power.)

But Dr. Cox is a boy band member no more. Like the greek god Proteus, he has reinvented himself as an astrophysicist. Now he is a serious researcher doing serious research into serious physics and serious astronomy. He gets to travel the world to conferences and hang out with all the “big boys toys” – the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN for example, and the ATLAS project in particular.

Most people will have heard of the LHC by now, but probably in a negative way–as the “the search for the God particle,” or “the black hole-making machine,” or “the expensive machine that blew up the first time it was used,” or “the experiment that could end the world.”  But actually the LHC is a collection of separate experiments all built around the perimeter of the particle accelerator itself, with ATLAS being the largest single part.

ATLAS, itself, is the detector at the very core of the LHC, and is the single largest man-made experiment in particle physics ever. The scale of this thing is truly staggering–it weighs 7000 tons and is about quarter of a city block in size–but what it’s looking for is incredibly small: the Higgs boson particle.  First theorized in the early 1960s, the Higgs boson has yet to be actually found and observed; but it is thought to be the possible source of dark matter, dark energy, and the underlying binding force in the whole universe.  For something so small, it sure has a large reputation to live up to.

So good luck with ATLAS, Dr. Cox.  For sure, it’s about as sexy a job as we “geeks in white coats” can possibly aspire to. But the thing is, underneath it all we know you’re still the pretty boy with a nice smile and a good sense of humor from those halycon boy band days.  And what’s great is that you might not even have to leave your musical roots behind you in your new line of work.  It looks like you could branch out into some hip hop collaborations with your new colleagues, given the success of their “Large Hadron Rap” (see YouTube video below.)  We live in hope!

Apologies to faithful reader Alison for any false advertising in this post–the author has since discovered that Dr. Brian Cox has been married since 2004.

10.2 Sir Patrick Moore Guides Us Through “The Sky at Night”
January 14, 2009, 10:00 am
Filed under: People Looking at the Stars | Tags: , , , ,

Thanks to this week’s Special Guest Author, Iain B.  (my husband)

Sir Patrick Moore, host of the BBC's "The Sky at Night"

Sir Patrick Moore, host of the BBC's "The Sky at Night"

Ask anyone from the UK to name an astronomer, and chances are it’ll be Patrick Moore.  He is to the UK what Carl Sagan was to the USA, or Einstein is to–well, everyone.

Patrick Moore, or Sir Alfred Patrick Caldwell-Moore (CBE) to be precise, is a musician and composer.  But the root of his fame is that since the late 1950’s – well before manned spaceflight – Patrick has been an amateur astronomer and presenter of a monthly BBC TV program called The Sky at Night.

The show covers a different topic each month related to astronomy, and well before the invention of online media it regularly issued a quarterly newsletter that could be obtained by viewers on mail-order for just the price of return postage.

Although he modestly describes himself as little more than an amateur stargazer, his lifelong dedication to the field has made him into a pillar of both the amateur and professional branches of the astronomical community.

Perhaps this is apocryphal, but I’ve often heard it repeated that the maps of the moon he created using a small telescope from his backyard in Selsey were the maps used by the Russians when they were planning their moon probes in the early 1960s, so accurate were the details of its features (particularly at the edges of the orb.)  Whether that particular anecdote is true or not, Sir Patrick has actually made a huge contribution to virtually every one of the telescopes you can currently buy at places like Sears, Costco and BJ’s.  That contribution is the Caldwell Catalogue – a list of the 100 or so brightest or most interesting “must see” sky objects for school kids and budding amateur astronomers to aim their new toys at.

(In fact, these days its even easier – many telescopes now come with internal computers for “go to” positioning, and all that’s needed is to press a couple of buttons -[C for Caldwell,  for example] and punch in a number, for the telescope to drive itself to the correct place in the sky.)

Nobody is perfect; and Patrick Moore is certainly no exception, having taken some rather controversial stances on immigration and women in television during his long career (he is now 85.)  But despite his political views, I think it’s important that we don’t obscure the man’s scientific accomplishments because of a few provocative statements.  There are very few of us who will make the contributions to society that he has consistently made through the years.

So here’s to Patrick Moore – long may he continue to inspire popular interest in astronomy, as he did for me back when I was 8 or 9 years old begging my parents to let me stay up and watch him in his late-night TV timeslot.