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Prince Charles

The Sunday Times is today reporting that Prince Charles farms according tothe phase of the Moon.& Unfortunately, you need to register to read the story on their website, but you can hear what Prof. Heinz Wolffhas to say on the matter in Radio 4's Broadcasting House, fastforward to about 38 minutes to hear his bit. He points out that itmight sound silly, but there might be something to it. The Moon does have a measurablephysical effect on the Earth (not just tides in the ocean, the land alsohas tides but they are less easy to measure), but how much of an effect this has on plants is debatable.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 31st Jul 2005 (11:47 UTC) | 2 Comments | Permalink

Charlie and the Chocolate Fact

Last night (after playing with my expensive door stop for a while), Peter, Stuart and I went to see the new Hollywood version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It was a reasonably entertaining film, although I'm not convinced that it's better than the original. I thought that I saw the film before reading the book, but I think I actually heard the audio version first. It's one of those films, along with things like the Wizard of Oz, that I remember watching during the long summer holidays at my grandparent's house when I was little.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 31st Jul 2005 (11:12 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

This one doesn't even boot!

My run of luck with computers is continuing. After the battery died on my pda the other day, my new computer (a Shuttle SK43G from Aria) doesn't even start properly! Yesterday I went out and got all the bits and then spent some time carefully assembling it all. When I turned it on, however, there was no signal to the monitor or keyboard. Stuart had a look at it and reseated some of the internal cables, which seemed to solve the problem as the bios screen was now visible. But when I put it all together again the same problem occured. I took everything out, reseated all the cables and the cpu (even tried another cpu), and still nothing. After hunting round on the web for a while it appears that other people have had similar problems with various Shuttle units and it generally seems to be terminal. So it will have to go back to the shop on Wednesday. :-(

Posted by Megan on Sunday 31st Jul 2005 (10:38 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

The 7th Floor

Today several of us spent the day clearing out the 7th floor of the physics department before the refurbishments start. It was quite fun going back through all the old astronomy pictures and optical apparatus, but it was quite sad taking the observatory apart. The dome is still on the roof, but there isn't much left in it now. I don't know how much practical astronomy will be possible next semester, probably not a lot.

Posted by Megan on Thursday 28th Jul 2005 (23:56 UTC) | 1 Comment | Permalink


The shuttle Discovery took off safely today and is now on the way to the International Space Station. There are so many cameras scanning every part of the shuttle that they should be able to spot if anything is wrong. A piece of the external tank did become detatched during take-off, and a bird did hit the nosecone of the tank, but NASA don't think that either event caused any damage. Once in orbit the astronauts will inspect the entire exterior of the shuttle to look for any signs of damage using cameras and space walks.

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 26th Jul 2005 (23:46 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Estates and Services

When I arrived at the entrance to the Observatory this morning, I was puzzled to see a queue of cars along the road. It turns out that Estates and Services from the University have turned up to replace the chimney on the plant room next to the visitors centre. As it is quite a tall chimney and could cause quite a lot of damage if it falls over and hits the glass-covered walkway, the visitors centre has had to be closed for the day. It seems that nobody knew they were coming today, and they had previously been told that they couldn't do the work during the opening hours of the visitors centre, but they are here anyway.

This means that all the visitors are being turned away, the cafe is closed and the staff have put together a sandwich trolley for our wing (otherwise it goes to waste and half the staff here go hungry!), staff arriving now are getting very confused as they can't get down the road. What a shambles. Mike, our site manager, is looking very harrassed.

Posted by Megan on Monday 25th Jul 2005 (11:43 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Another one bites the dust

My desktop computer has destroyed yet another hard disk. This time it was a simple catastrophic failure, rather than occasional errors followed by a crash. As the machine is six years old and barely coping with the programs I would like to run on it I've decided to start again. This machine was bout for about 400 pounds in 1999, so I'm going to set an upper limit of approximately the same and see what I can get...

Posted by Megan on Sunday 24th Jul 2005 (22:32 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


Asda are hopeless. A while ago they started selling peppers in individual packets, not loose like they used to. This is a huge waste of packaging, and inexcusible considering the current worries over climate change and diminishing natural resources. Last time I asked them about it, the lady at the customer services desk didn't know why htey had started doing it, and neither did the guy from the veg section who she called over.

Today, when I went to do my shopping, I noticed as I left the checkout that there are posters up about recycling, telling us how much rubbish is generated each year and asking customers to help them recycle carrier bags. So, once again, I asked at the customer services desk why they are packing peppers if they are so keen on reducing the amount of rubish generated. Predictably, she didn't know, but she did take my details and fill in a comments form. You never know, I might even get a response...

Posted by Megan on Sunday 24th Jul 2005 (15:46 UTC) | 2 Comments | Permalink

War of the Worlds

Last night I went to see the Hollywood remake of War of the Worlds. It was an entertaining film, and some bits of it were actually scary, but I can't take a film with Tom Cruise in it seriously! Peter sent me a link to the Bad Astronomer's review of the film. He mentions most of the stuff that we spotted (how could humans not have spotted several large lumps of metal buried under cities?), but he didn't spot the bad astronomy at the start of the film. There is a shot of the Earth with the Sun appearing round the edge, and you see the terminator fly accross the surface far faster than it should. The Sun barely moves and yet the near side of the Earth is fully illuminated before long.

Posted by Megan on Saturday 23rd Jul 2005 (21:39 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Some real astronomy

For the last few days I've been trying to reduce some rather bad MERLIN data (bad because most of the telescopes are down for maintenance, MERLIN data is normally not this painful), but today I have given up. The trouble is, there were only three working telescopes, and one of those kept going down for engineering work, so it really is quite bad. So we still haven't detected the new supernova in M51, and I haven't got another data point for the SWIFT source either. Never mind...

Today I've gone back to M82, trying to find the masers (like lasers but with microwaves) in a VLA data set. In attempt to be systematic about things I have been writing a script to pick out detections above a certain level. It is quite tricky to find these things because the same gas which is causing the maser emission is also absorbing radio waves at the same frequencies is the conditions are not quite right for a maser to form. So if you look at a spectrum then you might see a peak caused by a maser sat inside a trough caused by the absorption.

What the script does is attempt to remove the absorption, leaving behind any maser emission that might be there.

This image shows a test spectrum which I created to see if the script works. The panel on the left shows an example of the kind of thing you might see in M82. The two dips are the absorption, and the two spikes are the maser emission. The panel on the right shows the correlation of this with a template absorption only spectrum. The peak in this plot shows the point where the best fit between the template and the test spectrum occur.

The left panel shows the template spectrum (dots) and the same spectrum shifted to the position found from the correlation. The final plot shows what happens when you subtract this shifted template from the original test spectrum.

This all works fine for the test spectra, but it needs some modification before it will work reliably on real data.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 20th Jul 2005 (15:30 UTC) | 2 Comments | Permalink

Not quite Google Universe, but it's a start...

As today is the day when, in 1969, Apollo 11 landed on the Moon and humans first stepped onto another world, Google are celebrating with the addition of some Moon maps to the Google Maps service: Google Moon. If you zoom in far enough, you might even discover what the Moon is made of...

At Macc Astro's lecture last night (a very entertaining talk on particle physics by Prof. Sandy Donnachie), Alan gave me a copy of this picture from Google Earth which shows the observatory in quite amazing detail. You can tell that the image is a couple of years old at least as the old visitors centre can still be seen, along with the planetarium.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 20th Jul 2005 (13:25 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


Today we finally had last month's publicity committee meeting (originally cancelled as half the members were out of the country). It is quite daft that a large proportion of the staff (and most of the students) were unaware that there even was a publicity committee! Still, they know now, thanks to a notice board showing the latest press releases from the observatory.

A lot of things were discussed at the meeting, and we've now started planning the next couple of big events. The first will be a partial eclipse of the Sun on 3rd October. In Manchester we will see about 50% coverage, and it occurs in the morning so the visitors centre will be open from 8.30am. Hopefully we will have good weather, although there will have to be other things to do just in case! After that I'm hoping to organise a Go For It! challenge day for local Guide groups as part of the Astronomy and Space GFI that I'm involved with planning.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 20th Jul 2005 (00:45 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Harry Potter and the Smoking Telescope of Doom

What a week! Between trying to analyse ropey MERLIN data, and reading Harry Potter books, I've had very little time to do anything else during the last week. Still, it's been fun.

Credit: D. Champion

Yesterday was Harry Potter night here at Jodrell. Having ignored the whole Harry Potter phenomenon until now, I ended up having to read two book in two days so I had some idea what I was talking about! We borrowed some gowns from Hulme Hall and dressed up as prefects and professors, Stuart (Professor of Mayhem) made a sorting hat, badges for everyone and lots of other things, Lisa made huge numbers of flags in the four house colours which decorated the path to the visitors centre. Dave and I put together the pulsar group's scaffolding as a backdrop for Tim's lecture in the outdoor amphitheatre and strung fairy lights around it. And between running around printing and photocopying things, I spent the afternoon racing around the site looking for a long length of flexible tubing, then climbing on the 42 ft telescope setting up a smoke machine! It looked fantastic on the brief occasion that I managed to glimpse it, as Dave had taken an overhead projector and a sheet of green lighting gel out onto the roof and illuminated the dish from underneath! When we were testing it out, we timed it perfectly. As the first wisps of smoke fell over the edge of the dish and we all cheered, the visitors (who had come for the MERLIN review) all left the building, I dread to think what they imagined was going on!

Posted by Megan on Saturday 16th Jul 2005 (13:00 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


As I had to be in early this morning to do a tour for some sixth form students from Manchester, and the forecast looked good, I decided to cycle to Jodrell today. It was very warm, even at quarter past eight when I left the house. I'd gone less than a kilometre down the road when a school boy running to the bus stop decided to throw a bottle of water at me! I was rather bemused by this, why would you want to throw water at a passing cyclist?! Still, it was a good ride, despite that.

Posted by Megan on Monday 11th Jul 2005 (23:00 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

More stuff in M51

The weather has been particularly good over the last few days so last night, Tony and I took the opportunity to use the telescope on the roof of the physics department and photographed M51. The results don't look too spectacular, largely because the image has not had the effects of the telescope optics removed, a process known as flat-fielding. The doughnut-shaped patterns you can see in the image are caused by particles of dust in the optics.

Then, earlier today, Rob told me that there had been an X-ray flash in the same galaxy. It is probably not associated with the supernova, but it's interesting all the same.

Posted by Megan on Monday 11th Jul 2005 (22:31 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


After the scenes of jubilation yesterday when the decision on the 2012 Olympic Games was announced, it was quite a different story this morning. When I arrived at work the television in the tea room was on and a lot of people were watching the pictures coming from the scenes of today's explosions. As yet, no one knows who is responsible for them, or how many casualties there are as central London has effectively come to a stand still. We are especially worried here as most of the pulsar group are currently in London taking part in an exhibition at the Royal Society. I tried calling Dave to find out if they are all ok but either his phone is switched off, or there is too much load on the system.

Posted by Megan on Thursday 07th Jul 2005 (11:33 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


Most of the Active Galaxies group are away at the moment, but today I had an email from Tom to ask if I would look at the data on another source which was also observed over the weekend, along with the new supernova in M51. It turns out this other source is a gamma ray burster detected by the Swift satellite.

GRBs are distant explosions that are enormously energetic, originally discovered by scientists looking for the tell-tale signs of nuclear weapons testing. This particular event, catalogued as SWIFT J1753.5-0127, took place on 30th June and an optical afterglow has been detected. This kind of source is often put in a "Target of Opportunity" proposal when applying for telescope time. You can't schedule this kind of observation in the normal way because no one has any idea when (or where) the next one will occur, just like our supernovae.

After processing the data once and getting crazy results, I worked out what had gone wrong (which is good - feels like I understand what's actually going in!) and tried again. This time I got a far more sensible result, but I still want to check that it agrees with the answer that Simon, another astronomer at Jodrell and a VLBI expert, found when he processed the same data.

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 06th Jul 2005 (23:00 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

African Life

This evening the BBC showed a program about a British family who went to live with a semi-nomadic tribe in Namibia for two weeks, leaving behind all their home comforts. That was the idea anyway. The family was divided over the experience before they even left home, the Dad, Arthur, was really looking forward to an adventure, while the Mum (Jane) and eldest daughter (Jodie) were not at all keen.

When they arrived, the tribe made them very welcome, had a big party to welcome them and honored them by slaughtering a cow, not something they do very often. The Dad joined in and was really making an effort at first, while his wife and the children seemed horrified by their new home. They really were far too used to their western comforts and complained about the state of the hut they were given to use. Now, the people were making a great effort to welcome the family and provide somewhere for them to stay, and what did they do? The Mum cried her eyes out and refused to sleep there! So they were given tents which were pitched outside the village, and they cooked tinned food on their own fire!

After a while, Glen made a bit of an effort to interact with the Himba people, and Jodie became friends with Elizabeth, one of the Chief's four wives, while the others (including Arthur who had initially been so enthusiastic) seemed even less inclined to participate.

As harsh as it might sound, this programme had me in fits of laughter. The Hedgecock family were really rude to the Himba people, and it astounded me that they didn't realise it. Even if you know nothing about the culture, you might guess that refusing to sleep in the house they've provided for you and leaving the village without a word, just might be seen as an insult!

They seemed to have very little idea of traditional ways of life. They have probably seen documentaries or films about Africa, but never really thought about the actual every day realities of the traditional ways of life. Jane seemed horrified that there were flies eveywhere, I guess she's never been camping in this country before, let alone Africa! The chief summed it up well when they left: "They are a stupid family and not worth knowing".

Having been lucky enough to briefly visit rural Tanzania, I would love to visit the Himba people and explain that not all westerners are like this!

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 06th Jul 2005 (22:31 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

New Supernova

Last week, another new bright supernova was reported, this time in M51, the Whirlpool galaxy. Last year another bright supernova occurred in NGC2403 and we observed it using whatever telescopes in the MERLIN array which were operational on any particular day during the usual summer shutdown. This year we have been lucky again, although the telescopes are currently set up to observe at L-band, a frequency of around 1.4 GHz, rather than C-band (~5 GHz) as last year. Why does that matter? Well, supernovae get bright later at lower frequencies. They are bright at 22 GHZ within days of explosion, while they can take weeks to become bright at 1.4 GHz. We're observing it anyway, as and when we are able to, so we will hopefully be able to measure when it does become visible at 1.4 GHz. This will help the theorists further refine their models of stellar explosions.

The first observing run was on Sunday night / Monday morning. I've been looking at the data today but there is no sign of it yet...

Posted by Megan on Wednesday 06th Jul 2005 (17:00 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Deep Impact

The Deep Impact mission seems to have been a fantastic success. The impactor hit the nucleus of the comet right on target, puncturing the crust and sending a huge cloud of material from the interior streaming out into space. This material, travelling at an estimated 1800 km/hour, reflected the light from the Sun and caused the comet to dramatically increase in brightness. The event was observed by telescopes around the planet, including the Faulkes telescope in Hawaii, and the Hubble Space Telescope in orbit. Hopefully the data will all be safely retrieved from the Deep Impact craft and the project scientists can start to analyse it in order to learn more about what comets are really made of. We know that they are dirty snowballs, a mixture of ice and dust left over from the formation of the solar system, but this mission will give us a much better understanding of just what elements are inside them, and in what proportions.

Posted by Megan on Tuesday 05th Jul 2005 (23:50 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

It's the Master (not really)

This afternoon there were a series of lectures down the road at Manchester Grammar School. I chose to go to a talk on the history of philosophy and how it has influenced modern day science. After that I sat at the back of the talk on "The Life and Death of Stars" by John Thompson, a friend of mine from Macclesfield Astronomical Society who is a physics teacher at William Hulme Grammar school. Both talks were good, and the audiences, made up of sixth form students from across Manchester, seemed genuinely interested.

This was all leading up to the main event, a talk by the current Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees. He presented a series on Channel 4 last year on "What We Still Don't Know" which was very theatrically done, lots of shots of him wearing black and looking thoughtful, with all the interviewees sat on staircases. He reminded me of the Master from Doctor Who! Not suprisingly, he doesn't look very scary in real life! He's a good speaker, and somehow shorter than I imagined him.

Posted by Megan on Monday 04th Jul 2005 (22:00 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

Live 8

Yesterday was the day of the Live 8 concerts around the world. I listened to the London event broadcast on Radio 2 from about 5pm, and then switched on the TV when I sat down to eat my dinner. I noticed that they were broadcasting on the big screen in Manchester city centre, so I put my dinner in the fridge and headed up the road on my bicycle. I've never seen the Triangle so full of people, it was fantastic.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 03rd Jul 2005 (17:30 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink

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