Archives for category: interests
mars

Courtesy ESA

Last week, the White House announced that humans would aim to set foot on Mars by 2033, just sixteen years from now. As a longtime space lover, I found this news momentarily exciting, but then I paused. Is sixteen years in any way realistic? I think not.

Taking people to Mars – and back again – is a massive engineering problem, on a scale we have never before encountered. I believe it’s possible to do it, but if we try to rush it, it will end in calamity. It breaks down to a number of key problems:

Radiation

Without sufficient protection, astronauts will be subjected to intense radiation from the sun and from cosmic rays for the entirely of their journey. It goes without saying that space is a hostile environment, but, given the absence of a strong magnetic field, so too is Mars. We have very little experience of the effects of long term radiation exposure on humans outside of Earth, so a huge effort is required to gain more knowledge before we go. Frequent trips to or around the Moon would help, but given the absence of any such journeys in the last 40 years, we are starting practically from zero.

Supplies

A crew of people will need to be sheltered, protected, fed, oxygenated, medicated and kept warm for up to three years from start to finish. They will need to have all the equipment they need to do their jobs, plus replacements, if something goes wrong. This implies a support structure to be in place – around Mars, on the way to Mars, on the way back from Mars and on the surface of Mars itself – before the astronauts begin their journey. That’s a lot of work – much greater than anything encountered by the lunar astronauts. Of course a very large craft might be able to bring people and supplies along in one go, but getting all this out of Earth’s gravity well and into the International Space Station will be a challenge in its own right, not to mention landing so much of it on Mars.

Getting off the surface of Mars

Apart from the Moon, we have never attempted lifting equipment – not to mention people – from the surface of another planet. The Moon, with its weak gravity, is much more trivial a problem than Mars would be. Consider the problems here on Earth. We have yet to conquer routine space launches. They require months of preparation and testing with teams of engineers to execute. Costs per launch are still in the millions of dollars. And even then, things can go wrong: launches fail regularly or are scrubbed in the last few seconds. Now imagine having to do this on Mars, where a failure, no matter how small, might mean you are left on the planet for good. We need a lot of practice at this, on Mars, before we attempt to bring people along.

Leaving them there

Sure, we could forego return craft and find volunteers to go to Mars for good, but without any prior experience of living on Mars, my guess is that they would not survive there for long. We on Earth would be treated to a real-time Truman Show of suffering, sickness and eventual death. This would quickly wipe the shine off mankind’s’ great achievement.

Contamination

Right now, we still don’t know if life exists on Mars. Even though it’s unlikely, given the harshness of the Martian environment, it cannot be completely ruled out. Small traces of methane have been detected that deserve proper investigation. If we put humans on Mars – or god forbid, leave human corpses there – we lose our chance to find alien life there forever. We will have contaminated Mars with our own DNA, making any subsequent reports of life there highly suspect. We have the opportunity to make a truly extraordinary discovery on Mars. We owe it to ourselves to search hard for Martian life before we put boots there.

Let’s take our time

I get the feeling that this sixteen year trip to Mars is a kind of prestige project for Trump, as opposed to a genuine mission of science and discovery. I would love for us to visit Mars one day, but I think sixteen years is far too soon. We have a lot of learning to do and a lot of infrastructure to build before we can proceed with a manned mission that has a reasonable likelihood of success. Perhaps I’m pessimistic, but I think that the first successful landing is less likely to be sixteen years from now, and more likely to be sixty.

Cork Harbour is often described locally as “the second largest harbour in the world”. For a long time, I’ve been somewhat sceptical of this claim, so I decided to compare its size to other harbours using the MAPfrappe website. With this website, you can quickly compare locations with other sites around the world. I used it a while ago to compare well known islands to Ireland.

First of all, here is Cork Harbour. It’s a natural harbour, dominating a region of 22 km  x 16 km east of Cork City. A very rough estimate of its water-surface area is about 70 sq km, although I am open to correction on this. The land area in the centre is Great island, home to the town of Cobh and connected to the mainland by two bridges, one road, one rail. Less than two kilometres separate the headlands as it meets the sea, making it by any reckoning, a fine, strategically important natural harbour. Its considerable depth in many places allows large ocean going vessels – tankers, container ships and liners – to enter and depart with ease.

CH - Cork Harbour

It’s a beautiful, impressive and fascinating area, full of history and natural beauty. But is it one of the biggest in the world?

According to Wikipedia, its rivals are Sydney Harbour, Halifax Harbour in Nova Scotia and Poole Harbour in Dorset. Let’s see how they compare.

Poole Harbour, Dorset UK

Poole Harbour, UK

Aw look. How cute. Cork Harbour (silhouetted like a horned monster petitioning mariners just outside) wins this one. Poole, incidentally, also thinks of itself as one of the largest natural harbours in the world. I hate to break it to you, guys.

Halifax Harbour, Nova Scotia

Halifax Harbour

Cork harbour wins this one too, even if you were to be generous and start at McNabs island.

Port Jackson / Sydney Harbour, Australia.

Port Jackson

Y’know, I was surprised at this one, because most Corkonians will gladly concede that Port Jackson is larger. It doesn’t look like it here. The main open water areas are at least comparable.

After, these three, the assessment is.. maybe. But then, are there not other spaces that could  rival Cork in size? New York, San Francisco or Rio perhaps?

New York City

New York City

It’s close. Very close. I’d nearly give New York Harbour the edge. Interestingly, the mouth – Verrazano Narrows – is so similar in size to Roches Point / Crosshaven we should really have our own suspension bridge, just for the crack.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

CH - Rio de Janeiro

Rio’s Guanabara Bay looks to me like a proper harbour and it’s clearly bigger than our own – in fact you could possibly fit the whole of Cork Harbour into it.

It gets worse.

San Francisco

San Francisco

Oh this is not good. Cork Harbour looks tiny. And they have a suspension bridge at the mouth of their harbour too.

Oh, and we forgot:

Tokyo

Tokyo

or:

Auckland Manukau, NZ

Auckland Manukau

or, staying in New Zealand:

Kaipara Harbour, NZ

Kaipara Harbour, NZ

Whoa. Still though, we’re big for Europe, right? Right?

I give you:

Lisbon.

Lisbon

and:

Brest

Brest

and finally,

Oslo

Oslo

Folks, we need to take a long, good look at ourselves. Even if we are only the second largest harbour “by navigable area” (a claim I suspect given the sizes of Rio, San Fran and Tokyo, or we want to be pernickety about what harbour really means, we have to content ourselves that the claim “2nd Largest Harbour in the World” is dodgy. Seriously dodgy.

Still beats Dublin, though.

It’s World Cup time again and as usual I’m changing into the person I normally swear never to be: a football addict. I mean addict. I have watched almost every match since the competition began, honourable exceptions being the Ivory Coast vs Japan, which kicked off at 2am last Friday, so perhaps there is still hope.

I have been a fan since the golden year of 1990, when Ireland found itself getting into the quarter finals of the World Cup in Italy. The magic of those weeks is something few people of a certain age will ever forget.

I’m not sure what it is about the World Cup that turns me into the type of person I normally have little in common with. Football can be exciting, sure, but often it is boring and uneventful. There are many people who can speak to the intricacies of midfield strategy and defensive positions at the goal mouth. For me, I usually just see players kicking a ball to each other and sometimes getting tackled for their efforts.

No, for me the excitement comes from elsewhere. It’s the drama and the stories that unfold in the course of the tournament: the freak chances and frequent injustices that send whole nations from elation to depression in seconds, and vice versa. The World Cup can be seen as a collection of narratives more intriguing than anything the world of fiction has to offer.

This has been a particularly exciting World Cup. The terrific performances of Algeria and the USA had me on the edge of my seat. The surprising ineptitude of Spain and Portugal had me mystified. Suarez’s biting incident and Arjen Robben’s dive. England doughty performance that ultimately came to nothing. The last minute goals, the questionable decisions. What an event. What a spectacle.

It’s also an opportunity to bond with my sons. They are far more knowledgable about football than I could ever be, and I appreciate their answers to my unending questions. I’ve even been tempted to play football in the garden with them although I quickly make my excuses when my lack of match fitness makes its presence felt.

One of the great things about the World Cup is the sheer humanity of it all. Players and fans from all over the world coming together to remind us that we are not all that different from each other. If anything, the differences are getting less and less each time the competition takes place. As a celebration of our shared aspirations and vulnerabilities, this occasion has no competitors.

Now that we are reaching the late stages of the competition, it’s dawning on me that this event is coming quickly to an end. Normality is about to resume. I still fancy the Netherlands to do it, but given the quality of the remaining teams, it’s a crap-shoot at this stage. I’m looking forward to the final, but not to the long silence that will follow it.

I have finally yielded to the hype and I’ve downloaded Instagram. Instagram is a photo sharing app for smartphones which allows photos to be uploaded and shared. Mood filters can then be added to enhance the original.

At this time the pictures are only available on the web via services such as Webstagram.

Here are some photos from my walking trip through the Gap of Dunloe in County Kerry today.

I applied a Valencia filter to this one, creating a 1950’s effect. The old bridges in the Gap made it easy to re-create a “Quiet Man” look and feel.

We’re not sure if this boy is a pony or some sort of cross-breed. He was a great subject, though, staying bolt-still during the photo-take. The filter here was “X-Pro 11”.

This photo used a “1977” filter. From what I can remember, photos back in 1977 were pretty much like photos nowadays. The washed out look from many of these photographs is more due to the breaking down of the photographic chemicals over the intervening decades.

Finally, some lenticular clouds over the Gap, looking for all the world like UFO’s. I don’t think I used any filters at all here.

Tonight I am performing cutting-edge science. I am searching for planets revolving around stars some quadrillions of kilometres from here. My equipment? A laptop and an Internet connection. The cost? Just a bit of my time. The possible benefit? Contributing to discovery of entirely new worlds.

On December 16th, a new project – Planet Hunters – was put online. The aim is simple. You are given a whole series of light curves (graphs) from different stars, and your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to identify anything that might indicate a planet crossing in front of its parent star. It’s easy to learn. In a few minutes you can be searching for far-away planets like an expert.

Planet Hunters uses data from a satellite known as Kepler, whose job it is to study hundreds of thousands of stars over an extended period, looking for signs of planets crossing in front of their parent stars. Planets are very dim compared to stars, so they are almost impossible to detect visually. However if they happen to cross in front of a star, the light from that star decreases momentarily. This decrease can be picked up by powerful telescopes and it is these occurrences that Kepler is keeping a lookout for.

That’s where we citizen scientists come in. Many of these small drops in brightness are not easily detectable by computers. Humans are good pattern recognisers, so we can often see anomalies that a computer might not recognise. Searching through the light curves for transiting planets is a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. The planet, the star and the Earth need to line up exactly, so only a small percentage of stars are likely to show anything of interest, even if they have planets revolving around them. If enough stars are sampled however, new planets will certainly be discovered. Some scientists reckon that Kepler will quadruple the number of exoplanets known to us. We currently know of 700 planets revolving around stars other than our sun.

What hit me about searching were the many different types of light curves available. Many stars are relatively uniform, but others show complex variations and rapid fluctuations. The picture below gives you an indication of some of the star patterns I came across today.

So far in my searches I have come across a few patterns that may indicate a planetary transit. The software permits you to tag and highlight possible candidates. The same pattern is shown simultaneously to other users, so that comparisons can be made and observation errors reduced. If many people are tagging the same feature, then it is likely that something interesting is going on. Having us “citizen scientists” involved is of huge benefit to the real scientists,who would otherwise need to sort through a deluge of data.

Here are my 4 best candidates from my searches so far. They may turn out to be nothing of importance, but in any case for a few hours searching it’s been a fascinating introduction to the world of planetary discovery.

What a tremendous and wholly unexpected reaction to my “Five Reasons” post last Friday. To everyone who commented, “Liked” or shared my entry I would like to thank you all.

The entry had been in the works over several weeks due a renewed interest in astronomy caused in no small part by a recent visit to some huge meteorite craters in Germany. I had refrained from posting it earlier because of some problems with wording. I certainly didn’t expect it to get much of a reaction because my posting has been quite sporadic lately and comments tended to be few and far between.

How wrong I was. The entry was placed in a prominent position on WordPress’ Freshly Pressed page, and the numbers began to shoot up immediately. My initial reaction was that I was the victim of a spam attack, but after reading the comments I was delighted to discover that something entirely different was happening. My site got thousands of hits over the weekend with over 120 comments to the entry at the time of writing, many of them very positive and supportive.

Some of the commenters were exceptionally kind. Many of you share my love of the stars and planets and the sense of wonder it creates. A few of you lamented the lack of light available in urban areas – a concern I share too. Here is a small selection of comments from you that I thought I would respond to.

Ishana wrote:

Nothing is more fascinating than that which we cannot obtain.

Very true. But who knows what awaits us in the future? Arthur C. Clarke once said that when a distinguished but elderly scientist declares that something is impossible, he is probably wrong. I think we have a lot to learn yet, but yes, it seems there will always be an “unobtainable” when it comes to the vastness of the Universe.

CommentatorandPoet said some particularly nice things about my use of the English language, and I would like to thank him for this. If only I could always be so fluent, as it often takes quite a bit of work for me to come up with the right words.

Nora Weston said

“Every time I venture into virtual space to find information and photographs…I’m left in awe”

A great point Nora. Astronomy is not just about what we can see, but what these amazing instruments such as Hubble can perceive. We can experience so much just sitting at our desktops now.

Pduan quoted Carl Sagan, one of the foremost science communicators of the last century.

“every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

This piece of writing should be on the desk of every politician and religious leader in the world.

Rebelliousvanilla said

“I was laying on my back on the grass during the night and looking at the stars and thinking that if a civilization advanced enough to see details on Earth’s surface will look this way from Andromeda in 2 million years, they will see me, laying on the grass, looking towards them.”

You never know. Keep having weird thoughts, RV.

Chemical Marriage said

“Plus, IT IS HUGE! Space is a never ending hill to look over.”

Spot on and well said. I just quoted five reasons. I’m sure there are hundreds.

mndals said

“The universe is indeed filled with wonders and the more we learn about it the more wondrous it becomes.”

So true. We are only now beginning to learn about planets around nearby stars, and their strange and wonderful ways. What next? Life?

Last but not least, Tom Baker said

“I think my favorite heavenly body is my wife, but next to her is the Horsehead Nebula.”

Thanks Tom! That brought a smile to my face.

These are just a selection of the comments. I will try to visit as many of your blogs as possible over the coming days to see what I can find.

Thanks again for all your kind words.

A long time from now, Ireland and the UK will be just beneath the Tropic of Cancer, hugging the coastline of Africa. Japan will be on the Equator and the Arctic Ocean will be the largest ocean in the world. A large shard of Africa (the area east of the Rift Valley) will have split off and hit western India, and a two-thousand mile gulf will separate North America from South America. Only two major continents will exist: North America / Greenland and a supercontinent comprising Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australasia.

This is what the world will look like in 120 million years time, according to the German Research Centre for Geosciences

Continents have always been on the move. During the Carboniferous Period (around 300 million years ago), most of Europe and eastern North America was lush tropical rainforest, as evidenced by the very extensive deposits of coal (dead trees) in this region today. Over a long period of time, the continents have steadily moved across the globe like big pieces in a toddler’s jigsaw. Continents can be thought of as large rafts plying the oceans, occasionally bumping into each other, flooding, and splitting up due to internal processes in the Earth’s interior. 

For some snapshots of Earth when it was a young ‘un, check out this site.

Over the weekend, SpaceX managed to make history by being the first commercial company to put a payload into orbit around Earth. 

The Falcon 1 lifted off the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific on Sunday, lifting a 165 km dummy payload into an elliptical orbit around the planet. This is the fourth attempt after a number of high-profile failed launches. 

Although putting an object in space is no big deal nowadays, it’s still a big milestone because it heralds in a much more competitive, cheaper, efficient and fast-moving era in space exploitation.

The possibilities? Space tourism, space mining, zero-g manufacturing, and faster travel from one location to another on Earth. The downsides? More space junk and advertising.  When will the McDonald’s Golden Arches or a big Coke bottle grace our evening and morning skies, I wonder? Sooner than we might think, I expect. The day when billions of LEDs are implanted on the Moon, creating the largest dynamic TV display in history is on it’s way..

Over the past few years, I have developed a habit of skepticism, which perhaps could be described as the careful use of critical thinking in the face of extraordinary, supernatural or highly unusual claims. So, if I hear someone talking about healing crystals or angels or UFO’s or homeopathic cures or divine miracles, my immediate reaction nowadays is disbelief.

Skepticism is not something that comes naturally to me. I have a relatively trusting nature, so for me, skepticism is hard work. I’d love to believe – I really would – it’s just that alarm bells go off in my head which can sometimes make for awkward situations in otherwise polite company. 

So, when I hear about people using the phrase “at first I was skeptical, but..” in the context of “witnessing” something such as a UFO or a miracle cure or some other such nonsense, it’s become clear to me that these people doesn’t know the first thing about proper skepticism. Most people simply don’t realise the extent to which they can be manipulated or deceived by false arguments, hidden prejudices, partial evidence and statistical anomalies.

My journey into skepticism has been a long, but highly rewarding journey. In my teens, I read Martin Gardner’s “Fads and Fallacies“, which presented the other side of Homeopathy, Biorythms, UFO claims and Scientology. Much later on, I read Carl Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” and his “baloney detector kit”. Around the same time, I came across James Randi’s website with his million dollar challenge. I developed a keen interest in identifying logical fallacies and exposing urban legends using Snopes.com. More recently, I have become a keen subscriber to Brian Dunning’s Skeptoid and the superb “Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe” podcasts.

In the light of a media culture that seems to thrive on feeding mistaken notions rather than challenging them; in the light of a world where sophisticated marketing techniques are employed by all manner of cults and fringe groups; and in the light of multi-million industries peddling all manner of snake-oil cures, maybe it’s not too late to bolster our skeptical abilities. 

I would recommend the above books, websites and podcasts if you are interested in learning more.

My first presentation at an academic conference is over. I think I did a good job of it. The audience were clearly engaged throughout my presentation and I got a lot of relevant questions at the end.

I tried my best to do as good a job of it as I could. I avoided bullet points as much as possible. I added many relevant photos throughout the presentation. I started my commentary with a strong “wake up” statement which was well memorised in advance. I positioned myself outside the lectern and into the audience, using eye-contact to connect with them. I used a narrative style to tell a story. I relied heavily on my passion and interest in the subject to bring it alive, and I brought the story to a close by relating it in some way to how I started my presentation. It helped that my subject rocked!

If there were any areas to work on, I would love to interject a little bit more humour into my presentation style. It’s a fantastic tool that really helps to build up a rapport with your audience. Those to whom it comes naturally have a precious gift that shouldn’t be belittled. I also had some technology issues (porting my presentation from a Mac to a PC was much trickier than expected. However it was all resolved before the presentation. 

My Toastmasters training and my keen interest in blogs such as Presentation Zen really came to the fore today.

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