About Me

My Photo
I have a burning need to know stuff and I love asking awkward questions.

Thursday, June 30, 2011



Just Finished Reading: The Science of Battlestar Galactica by Patrick Di Justo and Kevin R Grazier

How could I resist? - after all I’m trying to read more science based books! So this seemed an ideal way to break back in without reading yet another VSI book. Those of you who have watched the re-imaged (and IMHO much superior) version of BSG will already know that, as much as possible, the science fiction elements of the story relied very much on real science. OK they threw in FTL ‘jump’ technology but that’s at least theoretically possible with a bit of imagination and a pinch of salt. Just about everything else is either within our present technology or understanding given enough time and effort.

The book itself – which contains many shots from the series as well as publicity shots – runs through the whole gamut of science from definitions of life (are the Cylons alive as we understand the term for example), to the possibility of ‘hive minds’, the ability (or possibility) of downloading memories, an interesting diversion into discussions about Cylon brain structures (and why the differences are so difficult to detect), how we could get from Colonial plus Cylon plus native to existing humanity (which will only make sense if you saw the end of the last series), the drugs used in the Colonial fleet, quite a bit of basic physics all the way up to Einsteinian Relativity, the problem with Gravity (both dealing with it in space and generating it on a ship), the basics of radiation, and the effects of nuclear weapons, explorations of the galaxy and the possibility of habitable worlds, the formation of planets, stars and black holes, various propulsion systems both sub-light and FTL (complete with equations), the problems of navigating across vast distances within our galaxy and much else besides. Subjects are discussed in enough depth to give you a good taste of things without getting too technical (OK, I skipped over the math) or too boring. Also throughout the book the link to the show itself is constantly referenced – helped by the fact that Grazier was the scientific advisor on BSG and works for NASA so knows his stuff.

This was a breeze of a read and informative both from the point of straight science and from the perspective of BSG so I found that I learnt stuff about both aspects which was nice. It’s an easy book to get into (though it helps being a fan or at least familiar with the show) and easy to pick up lots of information without too much effort. All in all a very enjoyable weekend reading experience. Recommended.      

Monday, June 27, 2011



Just Finished Reading: Guernica by Dave Boling

Northern Spain 1935. On a drunken night out with friends in the small fishing village of Lekeitio, young Miguel Navarro attacks a member of the Civil Guard and has to flee for his life. He is sent to live with his uncle in Guernica where he learns a new trade and falls in love with the beautiful daughter of the town’s strong man. When he finally gets permission to marry her he cannot believe his luck. Meanwhile Miguel’s brother is hiding in France and becomes part of the local smuggling fraternity moving hard to find or expensive items over the porous boarder between the two countries. As the years pass and Spain slips into civil war times become hard and the local community begins to fracture. Then, on the fateful day of 26th April 1937, their world is torn apart as German bombers of the Condor Legion use Guernica as an example of what airpower can achieve against undefended civilian populations. In the first example of its kind the town is bombed continually for several hours. Many lie dead or gravely injured and nothing is the same ever again.

By the time I reached the half-way mark in this amazing first novel I had already decided that it was the best book I had read this year. I honestly had fallen in love with a diverse and wonderful cast of characters. You hear people say that they couldn’t put a book down, that it gripped them so much that it was painful to turn their backs on the people they had developed such affection for. This is one of those books. After the awful attack in April ’37, described in just enough detail that I managed to keep my lunch down, things changed. With a jolt the focus was lost – or actually shifted – from Guernica and the families living there to the child refugees packed off to England for their safekeeping. For a long while I thought that the author had made a huge mistake taking his eye off the ball. I resented every page based in England that should have been based in the Basque Region. I mentally begged him to shift the focus back – and he did, sort of. The focus was now split between the refugees and the survivors, both coming to terms with their loss of home, friends and loved ones. In its own way it was as poignant as the first half of the book. In it we (the readers) suffered and triumphed as the main characters did – coping with lost limbs and ruined livelihoods. The smugglers now had a new cargo – people escaping the Occupation in France or airmen shot down over enemy territory. Everything had changed though much had stayed the same.

Boling had obviously done his research. The feel of this book was marvellous and I loved it as much as I loved the characters portrayed between its pages. Part of me felt that I really knew these people and part of me wanted to get on the next plane and go there. The kind of community in this novel is a rare beast these days though I’m confident that it still exists in places like Guernica. It was definitely a highlight of the year for me. I must warn you however that it might be a good idea to keep a handkerchief ready and if you’re in anyway emotionally inclined be prepared to have a good cry. Highly recommended.   

Saturday, June 25, 2011


HUBBLE DIRECTLY OBSERVES A PLANET ORBITING ANOTHER STAR

From NASA

Nov. 13, 2008

RELEASE: 08-289


WASHINGTON -- NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken the first visible-light snapshot of a planet circling another star. Estimated to be no more than three times Jupiter's mass, the planet, called Fomalhaut b, orbits the bright southern star Fomalhaut, located 25 light-years away in the constellation Piscis Australis, or the "Southern Fish."

Fomalhaut has been a candidate for planet hunting ever since an excess of dust was discovered around the star in the early 1980s by NASA's Infrared Astronomy Satellite, IRAS. In 2004, the coronagraph in the High Resolution Camera on Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys produced the first-ever resolved visible-light image of the region around Fomalhaut. It clearly showed a ring of protoplanetary debris approximately 21.5 billion miles across and having a sharp inner edge.

This large debris disk is similar to the Kuiper Belt, which encircles the solar system and contains a range of icy bodies from dust grains to objects the size of dwarf planets, such as Pluto. Hubble astronomer Paul Kalas, of the University of California at Berkeley, and team members proposed in 2005 that the ring was being gravitationally modified by a planet lying between the star and the ring's inner edge.

Circumstantial evidence came from Hubble's confirmation that the ring is offset from the center of the star. The sharp inner edge of the ring is also consistent with the presence of a planet that gravitationally "shepherds" ring particles. Independent researchers have subsequently reached similar conclusions. Now, Hubble has actually photographed a point source of light lying 1.8 billion miles inside the ring's inner edge. The results are being reported in the November 14 issue of Science magazine.

"Our Hubble observations were incredibly demanding. Fomalhaut b is 1 billion times fainter than the star. We began this program in 2001, and our persistence finally paid off," Kalas says. "Fomalhaut is the gift that keeps on giving. Following the unexpected discovery of its dust ring, we have now found an exoplanet at a location suggested by analysis of the dust ring's shape. The lesson for exoplanet hunters is 'follow the dust,'" said team member Mark Clampin of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

Observations taken 21 months apart by Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys' coronagraph show that the object is moving along a path around the star, and is therefore gravitationally bound to it. The planet is 10.7 billion miles from the star, or about 10 times the distance of the planet Saturn from our sun. The planet is brighter than expected for an object of three Jupiter masses. One possibility is that it has a Saturn-like ring of ice and dust reflecting starlight. The ring might eventually coalesce to form moons. The ring's estimated size is comparable to the region around Jupiter and its four largest orbiting satellites.

Kalas and his team first used Hubble to photograph Fomalhaut in 2004, and made the unexpected discovery of its debris disk, which scatters Fomalhaut's starlight. At the time they noted a few bright sources in the image as planet candidates. A follow-up image in 2006 showed that one of the objects is moving through space with Fomalhaut but changed position relative to the ring since the 2004 exposure. The amount of displacement between the two exposures corresponds to an 872-year-long orbit as calculated from Kepler's laws of planetary motion.

Future observations will attempt to see the planet in infrared light and will look for evidence of water vapor clouds in the atmosphere. This would yield clues to the evolution of a comparatively newborn 100-million-year-old planet. Astrometric measurements of the planet's orbit will provide enough precision to yield an accurate mass. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to launch in 2013 will be able to make coronagraphic observations of Fomalhaut in the near- and mid-infrared. Webb will be able to hunt for other planets in the system and probe the region interior to the dust ring for structures such as an inner asteroid belt.

[Old news but still very cool news.]

It's tough out there.... especially for the little guys.

Who shall be judge?

“Calvin says that he is certain, and they say they are; Calvin says that they are wrong and wishes to judge them, and so do they. Who shall be judge? Who made Calvin the arbiter of all sects, that he alone should kill? He has the Word of God and so have they. If the matter is certain, to who is it so? To Calvin? But then why does he write so many books about manifest truth?.... In view of all the uncertainty we must define the heretic simply as one with whom we disagree. And if then we are going to kill heretics, the logical outcome will be a war of extermination, since each is sure of himself. Calvin would have to invade France and all other nations, wipe out cities, put all the inhabitants to the sword, sparing neither sex nor age, not even babies and the beasts. All would have to be burned save Calvinists, Jews and Turks, whom he excepts.”

Sebastian Castellio (1515 – December 29, 1563)

Thursday, June 23, 2011



Just Finished Reading: A Gentle Axe by R N Morris

St Petersburg, Russia – 1866. As a freezing winter grips the city a woman looking for firewood comes across what appears to be a murder-suicide. Reported to them much later, the police initially agree with the assessment until Police Detective Porfiry Petrovich examines the crime scene more closely. Over the objections of his superiors, who think he is wasting his time, Petrovich just wants to clear up a few nagging doubts. Soon he finds himself buried deep in the cities underclass before returning to more gentile surroundings in search of those who dabble in child prostitution, pornography and murder.

The well read amongst you will recognise the name of Police Detective Porfiry Petrovich. For those who don’t (I didn’t) he was the investigator in Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The events in this novel take place approximately 18 months after the events in C&P. I did worry a bit that I’d be lost as I had not read the Dostoevsky novel. I need not have worried. Although the events in C&P are mentioned briefly in passing they are not central to the plot of this impressive story. I was impressed, as always, by good characterisation and a very striking sense of place. Not only was the city of St Petersburg the backdrop against which the action and intrigue took place it was almost a character in itself. The dominating part of the book I found – apart from the deep feeling of despair emanating from the teeming underclass – was the ever present and energy sapping cold. You could feel it at the turn of every page like a physical thing trying to get out of the book. It crushed the poor especially who spent most of their time either huddled around inadequate fires, searching for anything to burn or drunk on cheap vodka as a way of keeping at least the illusion of warmth. Although not a racy novel complete with car chases and dramatic fights, this book certainly did not plod along. It moved relentlessly to its conclusion powered by the detectives unbending curiosity and his desire to uncover the truth. Without anything but the most basic forensic help, which was only just coming to prominence, he followed clues, checked stories and inexorably followed the evidence. He was implacable and is a worthy addition to the historical detective fraternity. This is the first book in the series and I have added the next three to my Wish List. Recommended, but I’d advise wearing something warm before you settle down to read it.     

Monday, June 20, 2011


Thinking About: Other People

A little while ago I had a week off and spent it in a cottage a few miles outside Hereford. Although not exactly isolated it was far enough off the beaten track to give one friend dark enough skies to use his telescope and to give some of the others problems with cell-phone and Internet access – 5 out of 6 people brought laptops which I found more than a little amusing.

Despite the fact that I needed the break from work and I was in the company of friends I have known for years I still, after a few days, began looking forward to being back in my own home and to sleeping in my own bed. I wasn’t homesick (something I have never suffered from) but I was very conscious that I was in the company of other people for 7 days straight and for almost 24 hours of each day. That is highly unusual for me. Normally I spend most evenings and weekends on my own – at least physically. When I got back home I honestly relished the silence in my house (before I put some of my music on) and loved the idea that I could use the bathroom whenever I liked and that I didn’t have to take anyone’s wishes, opinions or feelings into account whenever I thought about what I wanted to do next. But don’t get me wrong. I like other people. I’ve even loved some of them and a smaller sub-set has loved me too. But I am fully aware of the fact that I not only like being on my own and want to spend time alone that I actually need to be on my own. My idea of Hell, to misquote Sartre, is to be in the company of other people 24/7 365. It would, I strongly believe, send me insane.

One thing I’m unsure of though – whether this feeling is the result of me being alone so much or whether it’s the cause. Have I simply adapted to my circumstances by preferring being alone? There might be an element to that but I don’t think that’s the whole story. It’s true that I have had to adapt to a largely solitary life but I doubt that I could have adapted so well if I did not already possess a predisposition to wanting/needing to be alone. Despite missing having a ‘significant other’ in my life I cannot conceive actually living with someone no matter how much I love them. If I did go so far as to share a house with someone there would have to be part of it that was purely mine where she would be excluded. She would have to be a very special person to put up with that kind of thing I think.

I have known several people who are clearly terrified of being alone for more that very short periods. I have always marvelled at their overpowering drive to be with other people (often to be with anyone rather than no one). They have been equally amazed at my ability to stand long periods of solitude. Personally I believe that I could spend a year on a deserted island without breaking a psychological sweat. The other people I know would probably have killed themselves in the first month if or sooner – or built a raft out of old coconuts and sailed to the nearest inhabited landmass. I do not understand this need – at least on an emotional level – and it is one of those things that perplex me. I suppose that in many ways I’m rather odd. If most people felt as I do there would probably be a lot less of us around. Maybe I’m missing a gene somewhere. It might explain a few things. If this ‘condition’ is genetic I’m pretty confident that it’s not going to be passed on to future generations. In the mean time I shall continue being on my own (I strongly suspect) and enjoying it (mostly). 

Saturday, June 18, 2011


Eisenhower's Worst Fears Came True: We Invent Enemies to Buy the Bombs

by Simon Jenkins for the Guardian

Friday, June 17, 2011

Britain faces no serious threat, yet keeps waging war. While big defence exists, glory-hungry politicians will use it. Why do we still go to war? We seem unable to stop. We find any excuse for this post-imperial fidget and yet we keep getting trapped. Germans do not do it, or Spanish or Swedes. Britain's borders and British people have not been under serious threat for a generation. Yet time and again our leaders crave battle. Why?

Last week we got a glimpse of an answer and it was not nice. The outgoing US Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, berated Europe's "failure of political will" in not maintaining defense spending. He said NATO had declined into a "two-tier alliance" between those willing to wage war and those "who specialize in 'soft' humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks". Peace, he implied, is for wimps. Real men buy bombs, and drop them. This call was echoed by NATO's chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who pointed out how unfair it was that US defence investment represented 75% of the NATO defense expenditure, where once it was only half. Having been forced to extend his war on Libya by another three months, Rasmussen wanted to see Europe's governments come up with more money, and no nonsense about recession. Defense to him is measured not in security but in spending. The call was repeated back home by the navy chief, Sir Mark Stanhope. He had to be "dressed down" by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, for warning that an extended war in Libya would mean "challenging decisions about priorities". Sailors never talk straight: he meant more ships. The navy has used so many of its £500,000 Tomahawk missiles trying to hit Colonel Gaddafi (and missing) over the past month that it needs money for more. In a clearly co-ordinated lobby, the head of the RAF also demanded "a significant uplift in spending after 2015, if the service is to meet its commitments". It, of course, defines its commitments itself.

Libya has cost Britain £100m so far, and rising. But Iraq and the Afghan war are costing America $3bn a week, and there is scarcely an industry, or a state, in the country that does not see some of this money. These wars show no signs of being ended, let alone won. But to the defense lobby what matters is the money. It sustains combat by constantly promising success and inducing politicians and journalists to see "more enemy dead", "a glimmer of hope" and "a corner about to be turned". Victory will come, but only if politicians spend more money on "a surge". Soldiers are like firefighters, demanding extra to fight fires. They will fight all right, but if you want victory that is overtime. On Wednesday the Russian ambassador to NATO warned that Britain and France were "being dragged more and more into the eventuality of a land-based operation in Libya". This is what the defense lobby wants institutionally, even if it may appall the generals. In the 1980s Russia watched the same process in Afghanistan, where it took a dictator, Mikhail Gorbachev, to face down the Red Army and demand withdrawal. The west has no Gorbachev in Afghanistan at the moment. NATO's Rasmussen says he "could not envisage" a land war in Libya, since the UN would take over if Gaddafi were toppled. He must know this is nonsense. But then he said NATO would only enforce a no-fly zone in Libya. He achieved that weeks ago, but is still bombing.

It is not democracy that keeps western nations at war, but armies and the interests now massed behind them. The greatest speech about modern defense was made in 1961 by the US president Eisenhower. He was no leftwinger, but a former general and conservative Republican. Looking back over his time in office, his farewell message to America was a simple warning against the "disastrous rise of misplaced power" of a military-industrial complex with "unwarranted influence on government". A burgeoning defense establishment, backed by large corporate interests, would one day employ so many people as to corrupt the political system. (His original draft even referred to a "military-industrial-congressional complex".) This lobby, said Eisenhower, could become so huge as to "endanger our liberties and democratic processes". I wonder what Eisenhower would make of today's US, with a military grown from 3.5 million people to 5 million. The western nations face less of a threat to their integrity and security than ever in history, yet their defense industries cry for ever more money and ever more things to do. The cold war strategist, George Kennan, wrote prophetically: "Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented." The devil makes work for idle hands, especially if they are well-financed. Britain's former special envoy to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, echoed Kennan last week in claiming that the army's keenness to fight in Helmand was self-interested. "It's use them or lose them, Sherard," he was told by the then chief of the general staff, Sir Richard Dannatt. Cowper-Coles has now gone off to work for an arms manufacturer. There is no strategic defense justification for the US spending 5.5% of its gross domestic product on defense or Britain 2.5%, or for the NATO "target" of 2%.

These figures merely formalize existing commitments and interests. At the end of the cold war soldiers assiduously invented new conflicts for themselves and their suppliers, variously wars on terror, drugs, piracy, internet espionage and man's general inhumanity to man. None yields victory, but all need equipment. The war on terror fulfilled all Eisenhower's fears, as America sank into a swamp of kidnapping, torture and imprisonment without trial. The belligerent posture of the US and Britain towards the Muslim world has fostered antagonism and moderate threats in response. The bombing of extremist targets in Pakistan is an invitation for terrorists to attack us, and then a need for defence against such attack. Meanwhile, the opportunity cost ofappeasing the complex is astronomical. Eisenhower remarked that "every gun that is made is a theft from those who hunger" – a bomber is two power stations and a hospital not built. Likewise, each Tomahawk Cameron drops on Tripoli destroys not just a Gaddafi bunker (are there any left?), but a hospital ward and a classroom in Britain.

As long as "big defense" exists it will entice glory-hungry politicians to use it. It is a return to the hundred years war, when militaristic barons and knights had a stranglehold on the monarch, and no other purpose in life than to fight. To deliver victory they demanded ever more taxes for weapons, and when they had ever more weapons they promised ever grander victories. This is exactly how Britain's defense ministry ran out of budgetary control under Labour. There is one piece of good news. NATO has long outlived its purpose, now justifying its existence only by how much it induces its members to spend, and how many wars irrelevant to its purpose it finds to fight. Yet still it does not spend enough for the US Defense Secretary. In his anger, Gates threatened that "future US leaders … may not consider the return on America's investment in NATO worth the cost". Is that a threat or a promise?

[I find it interesting that I came across a quote from Eisenhower a few days ago in a book I’m reading and then discover this article yesterday. I do like that sort of thing. Anyway – just think of what we might have been able to achieve without the expense in money, time and effort spent on and by the military. It honestly staggers belief at how much we spend (hence waste) on bombs and bullets. War? What is it good for….?] 

At least she's trying to be Green.

Friday, June 17, 2011


So True….. So Sad.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its labourers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the clouds of war, it is humanity hanging on a cross of iron.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1953.


Thursday, June 16, 2011



Just Finished Reading: Why I am not a Christian by Bertrand Russell

Lately I’ve been trying to catch up on some of the reading I attempted in my youth and failed to finish. Several of them – from my local library – where by Bertrand Russell. This was one of them. As I have said on several (OK, many) occasions I have never believed in God. I am one of those lucky people who have never had to go through religious withdrawal systems later in life after being indoctrinated into the faith at an earlier and more impressionable age. In my teens I looked for some structured underpinnings of my faithlessness but was too young to appreciate books like this. Now, almost 40 years later I do appreciate books like this. Unfortunately I’m also knowledgeable and experienced enough to find this book in particular somewhat disappointing.

I’m sure that, even when first published in 1957, this slim volume caused quite a stir – though somewhat less I’m guessing than if it had been published some decades earlier. By the late 50’s (1957 was a mere 3 years before I was born) Christianity in England at least was showing early signs of its terminal decline. So I doubt if much book burning or calls for legal action followed its publication. However, when the opening lecture – and title of the book – was delivered in 1927 I’m guessing it caused a few more raised eyebrows although not a single comment in the press. In it Russell outlined the classic arguments for God and demolished them one by one. It seems that such demolition has been going on ever since – which doesn’t deter Christians from presenting the same old tired ‘arguments’ in favour of Gods existence. None of this came as much of a surprise to me and I honestly yawned my way through the first part of the book. Russell was not exactly preaching to the converted but he hardly had to make much effort for me to appreciate his arguments. That was the first source of my disappointment. The other source was that Russell, being the product of his time and class background was simply too nice and obviously didn’t want to upset his readers too much. A clear example of this was his debate, broadcast on the BBC in 1948, with Father F C Copleston about the existence of God. Despite the opportunity to land some very good (and all too easy) blows against a very weak argument put up by Copleston he continually failed to do so – being in this instance too polite for his own good. My final disappointment was the fact that, because of the age of the majority of the articles, Russell did not have information to hand that could have enabled him to make much stronger arguments for his cause – knowing what we do now about the nature of consciousness, the early universe and the mechanisms of evolutionary biology.

Despite all of the above reservations however, this is still an interesting and, in some ways at least, a valuable historical document. What it won’t do is to convince anyone to give up their Christian beliefs nor will it greatly undermine them. Likewise it will give little comfort to those deciding to jump the Christian ship for a life of Atheism. It’s just not that strong. It is however worth adding to an atheist’s book collection as an example of how far we have come in the last 50 years. For that alone this is a book worth reading.   

Monday, June 13, 2011



Just Finished Reading: Ship of Rome by John Stack

The Western Mediterranean – 264BC. Rome is consolidating its hold on the Italian mainland and is looking to expand further. The island of Sicily is an obvious target. Playing one city off against another, the implacable Roman legions have managed to occupy half of the island but their hold is tenuous at best. Dependent on supplies from the mainland they are vulnerable and know it. Determined that Sicily will not be another Roman province the regional superpower Carthage strikes at the very vulnerability they know will cause most damage and destroy the Roman merchant fleet in a daring attack. Rome is left with an apparently insurmountable dilemma – how can they build a fleet and defeat the Carthaginian navy before their legions on Sicily starve. Only one alternative is open to them. They must build the fleet and develop new tactics to defeat the best navy in the world – all in a matter of months. Carthage is confident that such a plan is doomed to failure – but they have yet to understand the Roman way of things.

I have had a ‘thing’ about Rome for as long as I can remember. Despite all of the bad press they inevitably receive about slavery, the gladiatorial games and their imperial ambitions there is still something glorious about the idea of Rome. Set in the early days of the republic before Rome became the empire it was destined to become this novel brings out that ‘can do’ attitude that surprised and terrified all who opposed them. Most of the regional powers of the time would have taken the Carthaginian attack as the end of their ambitions. Rome, of course, saw it as a challenge – rightly seeing it as a make or break situation. At the centre of the story are two friends, one of Greek descent who captains a fast trireme as part of the Roman coastal defence fleet. The other is a captain of marines and ex-legionary whose job it is to board and defeat the enemy on his own ship. Whilst in Rome itself two Senators scheme and bribe their way into positions of power to manipulate the upcoming battles. Of course an important place in the narrative is reserved for the triremes themselves. These ships, normally powered by the sweat of slaves, are truly awesome pieces of ancient technology loving described by the author as they engage in battle against forces superior in every way. It is both numbers and ingenuity that will win the fights ahead and the Romans have both. So starts the First Punic War and the rise of Rome seen from the Senate house and from the blood soaked decks of the ships that will build an empire. Full of strong characters and breath-taking action sequences this was a highly entertaining novel. I’ve already bought the sequel – oddly enough not available in paperback from Amazon – and will be reading it fairly soon. I just need to know what happens next!        

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Cats.

As a big fan of the feline community I, rather inevitably, acquire and post pictures of cats on this Blog. To make these easier to find I've fished them out of the Random Pix pile and have given them their very own label. More to come.....
Cartoon Time.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Dusty Shock Waves Generate Planet Ingredients


From JPL @ NASA


Nov. 11, 2008

Shock waves around dusty, young stars might be creating the raw materials for planets, according to new observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The evidence comes in the form of tiny crystals. Spitzer detected crystals similar in make-up to quartz around young stars just beginning to form planets. The crystals, called cristobalite and tridymite, are known to reside in comets, in volcanic lava flows on Earth, and in some meteorites that land on Earth. Astronomers already knew that crystallized dust grains stick together to form larger particles, which later lump together to form planets. But they were surprised to find cristobalite and tridymite. What's so special about these particular crystals? They require flash heating events, such as shock waves, to form.

The findings suggest that the same kinds of shock waves that cause sonic booms from speeding jets are responsible for creating the stuff of planets throughout the universe. "By studying these other star systems, we can learn about the very beginnings of our own planets 4.6 billion years ago," said William Forrest of the University of Rochester, N.Y. "Spitzer has given us a better idea of how the raw materials of planets are produced very early on." Forrest and University of Rochester graduate student Ben Sargent led the research, to appear in the Astrophysical Journal. Planets are born out of swirling pancake-like disks of dust and gas that surround young stars. They start out as mere grains of dust swimming around in a disk of gas and dust, before lumping together to form full-fledged planets. During the early stages of planet development, the dust grains crystallize and adhere together, while the disk itself starts to settle and flatten. This occurs in the first millions of years of a star's life. When Forrest and his colleagues used Spitzer to examine five young planet-forming disks about 400 light-years away, they detected the signature of silica crystals. Silica is made of only silicon and oxygen and is the main ingredient in glass. When melted and crystallized, it can make the large hexagonal quartz crystals often sold as mystical tokens. When heated to even higher temperatures, it can also form small crystals like those commonly found around volcanoes.

It is this high-temperature form of silica crystals, specifically cristobalite and tridymite, that Forrest's team found in planet-forming disks around other stars for the first time. "Cristobalite and tridymite are essentially high-temperature forms of quartz," said Sargent. "If you heat quartz crystals, you'll get these compounds." In fact, the crystals require temperatures as high as 1,220 Kelvin (about 1,740 degrees Fahrenheit) to form. But young planet-forming disks are only about 100 to 1,000 Kelvin (about minus 280 degrees Fahrenheit to 1,340 Fahrenheit) -- too cold to make the crystals. Because the crystals require heating followed by rapid cooling to form, astronomers theorized that shock waves could be the cause. Shock waves, or supersonic waves of pressure, are thought to be created in planet-forming disks when clouds of gas swirling around at high speeds collide. Some theorists think that shock waves might also accompany the formation of giant planets.

The findings are in agreement with local evidence from our own solar system. Spherical pebbles, called chondrules, found in ancient meteorites that fell to Earth are also thought to have been crystallized by shock waves in our solar system's young planet-forming disk. In addition, NASA's Stardust mission found tridymite minerals in comet Wild 2.

Thursday, June 09, 2011


Just Finished Reading: Forensic Psychology – A Very Short Introduction by David Canter

This was the last of 5 VSI books I borrowed off CQ a few months ago. Following on from the volume on Forensic Science this book moves into the comparatively recent area of Forensic Psychology. As the author points out, when this subject is brought up thought inevitably turn to criminal profiling and (even more inevitably) Serial Killers. Despite the fact that the author is responsible for developing the art of offender profiling in the UK he pours a considerable amount of cold water on the more lurid claims for such a process often seen in newspaper reports and TV crime shows. Of course if criminal – and potentially criminal – profiling was as good as some people would evidently like it to be we’d be in an era of ‘pre-crime’ law enforcement. Let’s hope that we never slip into that particular dystopia.

Anyway, rather than concentrating on the exotic and frankly far-fetched aspects of forensic psychology this book outlines the work that experts in this field actually do. Probably the most basic and most important is to understand how criminals are made in the first place. If we can understand what circumstances gives rise to criminal behaviours we might be able to intervene before this happens and prevent crime at its roots. It’s a tall order however which is probably why we haven’t cracked that particular nut yet. On a more day to day basis forensic psychologists give a lot of evidence in court especially around the area of determining the sanity of the defendant and their competence to stand trail. They can also give expert testimony regarding various aspects of the case which enables juries to arrive at better decisions. Likewise they can work with offenders both during the court process and afterwards in institutions to both aid them in coming to terms with incarceration and to enable them to re-engage with society more effectively once they leave. They also work with law enforcement agencies, both helping them understand the criminals they are seeking and helping officers to detect deception once they are caught.

Although fairly interesting I did find this book to be a bit too dry and rather academic for my liking. Despite the fact that it managed to cover a lot of ground quite well it still left me largely unengaged. Maybe I was just expecting it to be a bit more exotic. The author certainly managed to disabuse me of that particular notion so I suppose he did his job well enough. Over all a reasonable read.     

Tuesday, June 07, 2011


Mmmmmmm..... Tasty.

I really like this Quote:

I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.

Physicist Richard Feynman.

Monday, June 06, 2011



Just Finished Reading: Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

When spinster Elizabeth Philpot is exiled to Lyme Regis with her two sisters she has no idea that such an unwelcome move will prove so momentous. Forced out of their London family home by their elder brother’s marriage they relocate to a small cottage on the English coast. There Elizabeth wanders the expansive beach until she bumps into a local child looking for ‘curies’ to sell to tourists in order to help her family avoid the workhouse. ‘Curies’ are local slang for curiosities – rocks that often look like plants or animals no one has ever seen before. Presumed to be the remains of dead creatures still in existence somewhere in the world they are ignored by many and feared by the few who suspect that they raise more questions than can be safely answered. Elizabeth becomes fascinated with the images of fish etched in rock and begins to collect the best specimens. Helped by the child Mary Anning, who has a particularly good ‘eye’ for finding them, they form a friendship that crosses age and class barriers. It is only when Mary finds what is initially thought to be a crocodile skeleton that their friendship begins to be put to the test. As Mary’s status grows it is Elizabeth who becomes jealous of the attention lavished on her young friend but all of that is put aside when Mary’s reputation is questioned by London’s intellectual elite.

I had never heard of Mary Anning until reading this wonderfully well written novel. It turns out that she (and Miss Philpot) where actual people who made significant contributions to our understanding of our prehistoric past in the years running up to Darwin’s scientific breakthrough. It was Anning who discovered and unearthed several plesiosaurs and ichthyosaur skeletons, the first of their kind ever to be unearthed, which set the academic community on fire and which provided the dynamite evidence which blew young Earth creationism and the literal interpretation of the Bible out of the water. Initially confused by the evidence before their eyes, the dawning realisation that they had stepped into a whole new understanding of the world is seen through the thoughts and actions of the central characters in this book. From grudging acceptance, to wide-eyed astonishment to point-blank refusal to think things through, the complex individuals at the centre of this story exhibit a wide range of reactions to the discoveries at Lyme. Here we are presented with a time and a place on the cusp of revelation. When hillsides collapse to reveal more fossilised bones the whole world as it was known up to that time crumbles with it. At the very centre of it all is an uneducated, poor working class girl with a keen eye and a burning need to put food on the table and coal in the fire. It is only recently, in several books about these events, that the name of Mary Anning is being recognised for her pivotal role in literally unearthing evidence that the story of Genesis was just that, a story and that the Earth is a lot older and has a much more interesting history that anything conceived of in ancient texts. This proved to be a well told story of an exciting and important time in scientific history. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 04, 2011



Feathered dinosaur older than earliest bird

by Colin Barras for New Scientist

25 September 2009

The record for the oldest feathered dinosaur, which has stood for almost 150 years since the discovery of Archaeopteryx, has finally fallen to an even older fossil unearthed in China, shedding new light on the origin of birds. The first full skeleton of Archaeopteryx, "that strange bird" as Darwin described it, was discovered in the Jurassic limestone of Solnhofen, Germany, just two years after the publication of On the Origin of Species. It has remained something of an evolutionary anomaly ever since. Spectacular feathered dinosaurs discovered in the last decade or so show clearly how a small group of theropod dinosaurs gave rise to the first birds, but these specimens are almost exclusively Cretaceous in origin, at least 20 million years younger than Archaeopteryx. Feathered dinosaurs pre-dating Archaeopteryx have remained elusive, largely because the Jurassic theropod fossil record is so poor. The closest palaeontologists have come to a feathered dinosaur older than Archaeopteryx is Pedopenna, discovered in Inner Mongolia in 2005. But there's some confusion over exactly how old the Inner Mongolian sediments are, and it's likely that Pedopenna is actually slightly younger than Archaeopteryx.

Not so the new Chinese find Anchiornis huxleyi, the latest of a number of specimens found in the past year and the first to sport feathers. It comes from the Tiaojishan formation of Jianchang county, recently dated to between 161 and 151 million years old and therefore older than the 150-million-year-old Archaeopteryx-bearing German rocks. Anchiornis possesses well-developed feathers on all four limbs, a trait that would have seemed bizarre if the fossil had been discovered a decade ago. But palaeontological finds in recent years suggest the four-wing pattern may have been the rule rather than the exception in proto-birds – both Microraptor, discovered in 2003, and Pedopenna have feathered hind limbs. "Current data suggests that the four-winged condition evolved probably once at the base of the Paraves, a group containing dromaeosaurids [the dinosaur family containing Microraptor], troodontids [the dinosaur family to which Anchiornis belongs], and birds," says Xu Xing of the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology in Beijing, who discovered Anchiornis.

The new find comes from a "critical stage along the line to birds", Xu adds. "Probably the evolution of longer and stronger fore wings [ultimately] made the hind wings unnecessary." Anchiornis is the oldest of the three, but its feathers are "smaller, symmetrical, different from typical flight feathers", according to Xu, making it unclear whether the animal could fly. It has unusually long legs suggestive of running, although the long leg feathers may have made rapid movement problematic. "This is something confusing," says Xu. "Although when you get close to the transition point from dinosaurs to birds, you get very unusual combinations of features." Alan Feduccia, a palaeo-ornithologist at the University of North CarolinaChapel Hill, says the new fossil species adds a "dazzling new piece to the complicated puzzle of early bird evolution", showing just how blurred the distinctions are between groups in this area of the dinosaur evolutionary tree.

[As I’m reading a book about Evolution at the moment…..]

I'm back.... and no Jet-Lag this time!