Archive | December 2008

My 2008

I have decided to write a short summary on what I’ve done over the past year. Apart from a few damn annoying things (i.e. getting broken into and having some stuff stolen) 2008 was a pretty good and fun year. I’m going to link to old blog posts throughout this post.
As always the new year is closely followed by my Birthday celebrations, this year it involved an evening out listening to the Planets Suite at the Birmingham Symphony Hall. Was a pretty special occasion, especially now that I am a quarter of a century old!
On January 16th it was time for me to go half way around the world, a trip to India to do some observing with the GMRT (Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope). I like it out at the GMRT, the weather was hot, relaxing and I got lots of work done. The weather was pretty stunning with some fantastic sunsets:
GMRT Antenna at Sunset
I had a good week or so observing and I came back with a lot of data, about 100 hours which I still haven’t fully finished the analysis of. Well I’m almost there, and I believe I may have actually detected something I was looking for (that would make a change, see later).
One of my favourite photos of myself throughout the whole year was taken during this visit:
Me and a GMRT dish
More on my visit to the GMRT:
Sunset on the GMRT, So it begins.., First day of observations complete, Its so hot… or am I lame?, So what did you do on Saturday night?, A Sunday morning stroll, It’s 7am… I’ve been up 2 hours – why?!, Its been a long day…, My friend in the control room..
February was a bit more of a relaxed month than January, well in the sense that I did not have to travel halfway around the world. Though there was the manic-ness of a talk in Cardiff, to Cardiff Astronomical Society, followed by getting the first train back at 5am to teach a lab at 9am. Lets just say I’m not sure the students got the best out of me that day! At least I was there, if only in body. I also took a trip down to London for a FAS meeting.. but I got there a bit early and so took the opportunity to go and have a look at the University of Birmingham built Spacelab 2 which now is sat in the Science Museum.
It was also my first chance to take a look around the fabulous refitted Royal Astronomical Society…
galaxy window
A day out in London.
In March I was given the opportunity to talk to the British Astronomical Association on my work. Not bad really since I’ve only written a couple of papers. I spoke around my work with the title: “The search for radio emission from extrasolar planets”. March also brought the Annual Poynting Physical Society ball, which as always was good fun! Another one of my fav photos of the year was taken…
I was also nominated for “Sir Arthur Clarke Award” in the category for “Best Student Achievement”. Alas, I didn’t win the award but it was really nice to be put forward!
Physics Ball, Nominated for “Space Oscar”
The start of April involved me rushing around to get research (with my conference proceedings from “From planets to dark energy: the modern radio universe” were published) done whilst giving a number of talks to astronomical societies, though it was quite a relaxed month. And it snowed!
The 10th talk in the series of public talks about astronomy that I have been organising since the first one took place too! I just hope we keep going…
April Snow!, 10th talk in the Patrick Moore Series!!, Conference Proceedings Published
May brought Lizzie’s birthday and my chance todo some baking…
A cake!!!
June was a fun month, probably not as much work done as there should have been really. I started off by giving a talk to AstrotalkUK about FAS stuff… take a listen [here]. Astrosoc took a trip up to Jodrell Bank, something we have been talking about doing since I was back in my first year as an undergrad, it was good to finally see this happen!
On the subject of Astrosoc, at the Annual Dinner this year I was awarded my lifetime members to the University of Birmingham Astronomical Society. Something that made me feel quite proud, for some reason I didn’t blog about this – I normally love blogging about random crap that makes me look good :-D.
June also brought my first experience of the Download Festival. I have to say I was impressed and glad that I took the break from Reading for a change. In all fairness I’m likely to go back to Download next year instead of Reading. It was great fun and not as cramped and uncomfortable as Reading can be. Probably helped that we drove to and from everyday though… oh and Sean and I got harassed by some storm troopers.
Then of June took me and Lizzie down to Edgbaston to watch part of a county game and get some free food, I won a prize at the PPS ball. Couldn’t moan it was a good day.. shame it started to rain! Typical English cricket!
Interview for AstrotalkUK,A trip to Jodrell Bank…, Download Festival 2008
July was truly fantastic and involved probably my most adventurous couple of weeks of my life – backpacking from Berlin down to Rome on the train. For some reason, probably the fact that I didn’t have time I’ve never gotten around to blogging about this properly, so I’ll try and fill in some blanks now.
So the trip started off on June 30th with a flight from the awful East Midlands airport to Berlin. The flight itself was nice and easy, though I want to avoid East Midlands airport at all costs in the future, bloody hell hole. Once we got to Germany everything as pretty simple – after a couple of trains we were at our hostel (the Generator), which reminded me of some old Laser Quest (bright blue and red walls with blue lighting). Was pretty cool and did the trick.
Our first full day in Berlin involved us taking the train into Alexanderplatz, I’m still not sure we actually paid for that journey… actually I don’t think we did! Woops. We looked at the obvious and huge TV tower, took a look at a couple of Churches nearby.
We then walked down to the road the Berliner Dom, the main Cathedral, it costs us 3 Euros to go in and go up to the top. Was a pretty fantastic view, though the parliament building had a better view. Continuing on down the road you eventually hit the Brandenburg Gate (Tor). If was very busy around this, it actually looked like Euro2008 had been on display there. A short walk further down the road took us to the Parliament building, which has a rather cool, but odd structure on the roof. We didn’t go in at this point as the queues were huge. We then took a short walk down through the park and ended up at the English Garden, which had a rather cool cafe in. Adam and I had a rather nice dark beer. After this we got back on the train and had a look around where the Berlin wall reaches into the north of the city – a very odd site. It was actually smaller than I thought it would be, but I could fully appreciate how foreboding it would have been.
Our second day in Berlin, and I was already tired so we got a day rail pass. We started off by going to the Parliament building. The queue was not too long though it was probably slowed down by Adam having his electrical tape confiscated (though he got it back later, he needed it too keep his shoe together!). The glass dome was impressive but I was a bit disappointed. On the way back down the road we were able to walk back through the Brandenburg Tor.
We then went down to the Jewish Memorial. I was not too impressed by the block, it was just a bit bland.. maybe the hot sun didn’t help. The museum underneath however, was well, depressing – but I had expect that. This was followed up with a reflective lunch at Kamps. A short stroll down the road took us to the car-park that was believe to have been Hitler’s bunker (well the location of). This was followed off by a trip to one of the most tourist heavy locations I’ve ever been to – Checkpoint Carlie. Very commercial – not sure it was worth the walk! From here we went to the museum das terrors – which was largely disappointing but then again it was only temporary and very very hot! We ended up back in Alexanderplatz for a look around a church – which was truly breathtaking. We ended up having dinner around there at a restaurant that just served potato based dishes, though the food and musics was good!
From Berlin we headed down to Dresden. I was very impressed with how easy the train ride was. We then took a walk around as we got down to Dresden for 9. This involved a walk around the beautiful Zwinger palace. Dresden is truly beautiful, well once you get pass all the big old communist looking buildings. We ended up having lunch in an Irish pub, we had to do this at some point during the trip didn’t we?!
We left Dresden shattered, but rather happy and onto Prague…
My first impressions of Prague were very negative. Their international train station is a bit of a dump and their metro system, though rather cool, has the most annoying ticket machines that we came across on our whole journey. It probably didn’t help that the place we was staying in looked, well lets just say a bit dodgy. It was fine once you were in there – a place to stay in the end and that’s all that matter. Oh we also got rather lost getting of at the wrong station on our fist day of exploring and then the first thing we saw was some “young lady” selling drugs… good old St Wenceslas square!
Still though Prague was fantastic with lots of wonderful architecture, though a bit more expensive than we thought it would be.. oh and their clock is cool but didn’t not beat the wonderful glockenspiel that was in the Zwinger palace! For more see Images taken in Prague.
From Prague we headed onto Vienna, on a rather fancy train – well a Eurostar so not that fancy but compared to the last couple much nicer… though not as much fun – as we had compartments up to that point! By this point I think I was feeling a little exhausted and luckily we had our own apartment to rest in. Vienna had some absolutely stunning building in it. Though I wouldn’t recommend going on a boat ride down the river.. especially without a coat and it raining on you! The picture really speak for themselves… Vienna images. Our good friend, the monkey had fun too…
From Vienna it was to the home of sound of music and gorgeous Salzburg. Salzburg is the sort of place that you couldn’t spend too long at if you wanted lots of things todo that you would get in a big city such as Berlin but was full of fantastic little places and was very relaxing. Since we had a long day there we ended up playing mini-golf to pass the time as we waited for our train… a night train down to Venice. Images of Salzburg.
The train journey to Venice was uncomfortable.. but at least I got some sleep. It was also 2 hours delayed, now that takes the piss really – up their with Virgin trains! Didn’t help that there appeared to be no air con! It didn’t get any cooler when we got to Venice but I’m sure we were fully expecting the heat, though we were completely shattered by this point. I actually wrote a blog entry about this, and so will direct to it, Venice.
After a couple of days in Venice it was time for us to split, with Adam and Maz going to Milan to go back to Brum for graduation and me and Lizzie to head on down to Rome. The train journey to Rome was fun and apart from a few small issues I had a great time in Rome… I think the scene of the year for me had to be walking out of the Colosseo train station to see the Colosseum and the Moon.. the first thing we saw in Rome (for more images see Images of Rome.
An easy flight was had back to the UK.
It was only a few weeks later that we were back off on holiday this time to France. I had a great time in the Loire Valley region of France. The weather was Sunny and the evening skies were fabulous (I’ve never seen the Milky way looking so wondrous, I reckon this was the first time I’ve seen the gas clouds). A short stay in France.
At the start of August, before the trip to France Lizzie and I managed to get on the TV, well Astrosoc did as ITV Central covered what we were doing for the Partial Solar Eclipse… Partial Solar Eclipse. Oh and probably the most adult thing that I did all year happened during August… I moved in with Lizzie… eek! View from my flat
September brought the University of Birmingham Space Day – which was hugely successful with over 300 people along. I was very pleased with this – a big step forward for our outreach activities. The FAS Convention was also held during Sept and the day went well with 150 people along, I stepped down as Secretary but now have the full job of organising next years convention. My second paper A Deep 150 MHz GMRT Survey in Eridanus was also published in Sept! Woop! I also started teaching a course at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens on astronomy… which is a nice escape from the day to day research and a way of taking a step back and thinking about the larger issues in astronomy. To link with this course I started a new astronomy blog… “Musings in the Cosmos” –
I also got to see Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company with Patrick Steward and David Tennant… absolutely wonderful!
Vale Fireworks were a big highlight in November, as always…
December was rather busy (I still haven’t digested the past month) and bought a fantastic Lunar Conjunction:
In short though, 2008 was a great year – full of travels and at times hard work. I’m almost finished with my thesis so 2009 should bring some interest challenges and hopefully a bit more travelling!

An astronomers guide to writing a blog

With the International Year of astronomy on our doorstep this is a great time to promote astronomy and of course in the technological world we live in this also means online. There are a large number of fascinating websites offering astronomical delights but few really have a personal touch. For IYA there is a global project called “Cosmic Diaries” that will involve a few professional astronomers writing about their daily lives (as a blog). Sounds interesting, but I’m a bit unsure if this is entirely a good idea, for example will people be so open to tell us about their latest theory? I doubt it. Also professional astronomers tend not to have a huge amount of time spare and don’t really do science that is readily accessible to the public. If I was to tell you about a double-double radio galaxy I’d discovered at 610 MHz with the GMRT then I’d have to spend an awful amount of space describing what this all meant. Now some might do that, but I doubt all would. For those that know the stuff I’m sure it would be interesting, but for those that don’t they will just leave with an impression of astronomy being impenetrable. This, as you all know, is not true. Amateurs are the foot soldiers of the astronomical community, you are the people who do this for fun… and make it fun for everyone else – you aren’t the ones worrying about data analysis (well you might be but probably not of the astronomical kind) when you go to bed. Thus, I’m going to suggest that you would be much better placed to run blogs for IYA. You will be able to put over that enthusiasm in a different way. So why not run a blog as an astronomy society? With 10 of you blogging content will be easily produced and will vary nicely – making an interesting read.
So how do you write a blog? Well if you where to use a popular search engine you will find countless documents on this, so I’d encourage you todo this.. but here are a few ideas.
The actual site – do I need my own website? Personally I run my own webserver with Moveable Type installed (if you are that way inclined then this is a rather simple installation) but if you are not or don’t want the added cost of webspace then I’d suggest using one of the following (there are of course many others):,,,,,, For ease of use and setup Blogger and Tumblr can’t be beaten in my opinion (I’ve run blogs on both). Be careful with your identity. Remember, you can be anonymous to most of your readers. This is one of the best aspects of blogging. No one has to know who you are!
The content, what do we put on here? Anything you like – just what you have observed might be interesting, or even just what your society is doing / has done. I’d always suggest using pictures when possible (but do remember copyright rules and give credit when appropriate). Don’t expect to get too many visitors to begin with – writing a popular blog doesn’t happen overnight. The essence of the blog stems from journalling which means the blog is FOR YOU. Work it how you feel most appropriate but with multiple authors you will quickly amaze a range of interesting stuff. Since we are talking about writing a scientific blog then I’d very much encourage you to ensure that you try and explain every term you use, or at the least create a link to another website (wikipedia can normally do the trick) that has more details – and hopefully penetrable for all. Oh and don’t forget to tell people about it. Register it with blogging monitors like technorati.. and tell you friends!
Just to give you an idea about a few blogs, here are two I maintain (my personal one) and completely astronomy one). I’d also suggest taking a look at other peoples such as or

World’s strongest cream

… maybe not. biggrin.gif

Liquid Nitrogen and the Banana

What happens when you put a banana into liquid nitrogen? Well… lets see:

(this definitely provided a nice distraction from the afternoon laboratory session biggrin.gif )
OK, so that’s cool.. but why does freezing a banana make it so brittle? Well… bananas have a large water content. As the banana is frozen this causes millions of tiny ice crystals to form. These form in many different spots and aren’t very well aligned (this is called a grain boundary). The presence of many weak boundaries makes it very easy to shatter the banana. A good analogue is to think of ice. A big block of solid ice (so one large crystal) is much easier to break up than a bag of ice cubes that are all stuck together (if you don’t believe me go give it a go!). Also, the freezing causes damage to the cell walls of the banana, making them much weaker than normal (and thus a reason why films likes Demolition Man will never happen… unless we make some massive progress in science).

TOVO T1000 – WiFi phone

Tesco direct (their online service) have been [offering a number of cheap wifi phones] recently (including the Tovo T1000). I have been after just the thing recently, though I’d rather it have worked with Skype I did not mind particularly.It is also much cheaper than its competitors so with a bit of a push from my girlfriend I went and ordered it.
It came the other day but I got my first chance to play with it today… In short argh(!) but wooh!
OK, the Tovo service seems absolutely abysmal. It just does not work out of the box at all. The actually hardware of the phone though is pretty nice albeit like a late 90s Nokia (but I kinda like that). After about 10 minutes I had it working on my network and a few minutes later I was logged into the phone via a web browser on my computer. I was quite pleased with that. Then the fun and bloody annoyingness stated. The Tovo website is so incredibly slow it makes a 56K modem look fast. Anyway, I went through the registration procedure and that all seemed fine – put in my details on the phone… and nothing. Nothing at all. The test line just took me to some automated response “this account is not activated” or some s**te like that. I played around with various different settings and hunted around the tovo website to no avail. I came to the conclusion that I should use another service provider. Personally I would have loved to have used skype but that doesn’t work with [SIP]. So I did a bit of trawling and decided that [] would do the trick… and indeed it did (I actually spent about an hour trying to get other services to work and I’m not sure what I was doing wrong with them but I have a few ideas). Callwithus definitely had the most useful help ([config page]) including a “what someone else has done” [screen grab] this is for the UTstarcom which is the same model, just the tovo is a re badged version). Also another good reference point (which I had found earlier but forgot about during most of the above is: [] – its darn useful!).
Once I was using callwithus things went quite smoothly (to run an echo test you just have to call – 3246) and then I added a couple of quid onto my account and 1p a minute local line calls was at hand. I call my parents to test it out and all was well. The audio quality is pretty good (my mom tends to moan about this with Skype and didn’t say a word, so it must be good!).
The only thing I need todo with it now is to get a local number associated with my account, which I will do later – once I’ve done this I’ve got everything I wanted from it.
In short the phone is cheap, well worth it… TOVO is not worth the time spent but with the handset you are free to use other services. If you do so it will work and once you get over a few hiccups it works well. In the end I expect this will be a well spent 20 quid.
Here are a few useful links:

The Solar Spectrum with a digital camera

The other day, whilst teaching a lab I decided to get a simple spectrometer out and aim it at the day lit sky. This allows you to observe the solar spectrum without the chance of blinding yourself (you should never stare or aim any optical aid at the Sun). I then placed my digital camera on the end of it and aligned it roughly to get:
The dark bands on the images are absorption lines in the Solar spectrum with the dominant lines being called the Fraunhoffer Lines. These are a set of spectral lines in the solar spectrum that are caused by absorption by those elements in the upper layers of the Sun.

Lunar Conjunction

Last night, the three brightest objects in the night sky converged, producing a triple-conjunction. I managed to get a half decent view between spells of cloud from my flat window…
So in these images you have the Moon, with Venus just to the bottom right and then just a bit higher and to the right Jupiter! Not bad for a 5 minute break in the cloud.