While making my way through my RSS feeds this lunch time I came across a very well written but very disturbing article entitled Rigged by George Monbiot. It basically makes a mockery of the current attempts by governments to deal with climate change. On the one hand they talk about the need to cut carbon and tell us all to cut down and be more efficient but on the other hand they offer massive tax incentives to companies to encourage them to extract more fossil fuels. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that all fossil fuels that are extracted will be burned, hence the governments talk about reducing carbon but actually incentivise its increase! What really makes this article so damming is that the author backs up all his points with references. The way this article is referenced it could be published in an academic journal. Anyhow, as Fake Steve Jobs would put it, here’s the money quote:

The government’s climate change policy works like this: extract every last drop of fossil fuel then pray to God that no one uses it.

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Amazingly comet 17/P Holmes is still visible to the naked eye under good conditions. When it flared up way back in October no one dared predict it would remain visible for more than a week or two. The comet has changed a lot in appearance over the last month and a half though. It started out looking like a star and is not a massive and very diffuse blob which appears as big as, if not bigger than, the Moon. This new defuse character means that the comet is rendered invisible by any Moon light, haze or high cloud. Having said that I did manage to glimpse it last night from my back garden in Maynooth so it can stand a little light pollution when it is very high up in the sky (it was nearly over head when I observed it last night). I can’t imagine this fascinating comet will still be visible one Moon cycle from now so make the most of the next few days to grab it before the Moon comes in to spoil the fun again, and probably for good this time!

Holmes071209.jpg

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Contrary to popular belief Astronomers do in fact have a sense of humour! I have below incontrovertible evidence! Oh … and they can also sing pretty bloody well!

With the Irish weather being what it is it’s been quite a while since I’ve managed to get a good look at the periodic comet Holmes. Since my last post about the comet I managed to observe it just twice, once on the 28th of October, and this evening. I didn’t bother posting on the 28th because conditions were poor and not much had changed since my last post. However, today, I got to observe the comet with good observing conditions.

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After yesterday’s surprise outburst comet 17/P Holmes continues to put on a great show. This object is highly dynamic and you can watch it move day-to-day with just the naked eye. Between yesterday and today the comet has moved noticeably closer to the star Alpha Persei and has also definitely brightened. Yesterday Holmes and the star Delta Persei looked to be the same brightness, today the comet is definitely brighter than the star. I’d estimate it’s brightness at about Magnitude 2.5.

I’ve been following the comet with my trusty 10x50mm binoculars and the changes are even more spectacular through them. Yesterday Holmes looked like a star, a point of light with no noticeable coma or tail. Today, it looks like a compact globular cluster with a bright core. Yesterday I didn’t really notice a colour buy today it’s clearly yellow. I’ve never seen an astronomical object change so much so quickly. I hope we get to watch this fascinating object evolve for a few more days to come, however, the weather forecast for us here in Ireland is not looking good :(.

I’ll leave you with a scan of my record of today’s observation of the comet:

Comet 17/P Holmes - 25-10-2007 @ 23:30

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It’s very rare to get to see a comet which is so bright that you can easily see it from the middle of a housing estate through light haze with a near full Moon with just your eyes. No telescope, no binoculars, nothing! But that’s what I’ve just done. The Periodic comet 17/P Holmes has just surprised the heck out of Astronomers by brighting from Magnitude 17 (you need a professional grade telescope to see things that faint) to Magnitude 3 (easily visible with the naked eye) literally over-night. Obviously something very spectacular just happened on the comet.

Thanks to an email with coordinates form Terry Mosley I knew Holmes could be found near delta Persei at around midnight. When I got outside conditions were very poor and not helped by the street lights all around me. As I mentioned there was a near full Moon high to the south and a think layer of haze across the whole sky being lit up by the Moon. Needless to say my expectations weren’t high. However, Holmes was so bright that it distorted the shape of Perseus to the extent that I had trouble finding the constellation! My brain just kept saying “no, that’s not Perseus, Perseus doesn’t have that nice little triangle of stars in it”. You guessed it, one of those three stars was not a star at all but the comet. To me Holmes looked to be about the same brightness as Delta Persei so that would put it at around the Magnitude 3. I’ve never seen a comet like this before. It looks just like a star, even in binoculars. No Coma, no tail, nothing, just a point of light. For all the world it looks like an extra star has appeared out of nowhere in Perseus. I’ve attached a scan of my record of the observation below.

Comet 17/P Holmes - 25-10-2007 @ 00:20

If you’re interested in observing the comet yourself the guys in Astronomy Ireland have been kind enough to put a finder chart up on their website. You can find it here: www.astronomy.ie/holmes2.gif

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I was invited to a careers fair organised by my old school yesterday. The idea was that past pupils would come back and be available to talk to current students and their parents about their experiences in further education and/or employment. I was past student number 78, and if memory serves, there were another five to ten past students after me on the list. For a school of about 600 students I was very impressed by those numbers. The place was also packed with interested students and parents so it was not only a good idea but also a success. I had a constant stream of students talking to me about the sciences and IT throughout the two hour event. The students were keen and enthusiastic, which was great to see. However, the students who spoke to me all had one other thing in common, they were all male.

I always hopped that as time went on the gender imbalance in the sciences and IT would sort itself out. I thought it was just a relic of long gone times that would automatically be corrected as the older generations were replaced by newer ones. That is plainly not the case in rural Ireland. I don’t think this imbalance is down to prejudices or uneven opportunities within these disciplines. That certainly was the case in the past but, I see no evidence of it now. So, it must be something else. I’ve been thinking about this all day, and I can only assume it has something to do with image. I guess school girls don’t see either science or computers as interesting. We’re going to have to change that, but I’ll be damed if I can see how. Anyone out there got any ideas?

People didn’t seen averse to my posting links to interesting articles I’d recently read so here’s another batch to tickle your fancy. These range from serious and thought-provoking to playful and humorous.

  • We’ll start with a thought-provoking article about Linux. This is one that some of you are bound to disagree with but I think Walt Mossberg is right, Linux is getting better but it’s not yet ready for novice users – Linux’s Free System Is Now Easier to Use, But Not for Everyone
  • While we’re on the topic of technology I came across a fantastic essay by one of my hero’s Stephen Fry on smart phones. I had no idea Stephen was such a technophile! This is a very long but a very well written, thoughtful, and humorous look at why none of the supposed iPhone killers actually are iPhone killers – Device and Desires
  • Before we more on to other matters here’s one more technology article. One I find rather humorous. According to Steven Frank from Panic Software Macs make better Windows machines than regular PCs! – Macs Really Do Run Windows Better
  • Now on to a totally different subject, light pollution. I came across a fantastic article about it in the New Yourker this week. That article is long, but very well written and touches off all the issues including energy savings, the ways in which much modern ‘security’ lighting actually helps the criminals and of course the wonders of the night sky which we are depriving our selves of needlessly – The Dark Side
  • Finally, some light entertainment in the form of a fantastic parody of the last Harry Potter book – Potterdammerung

Note: This article was written for, and first published in, The Big Bang, the news letter of Astro2, the Astronomy & Physics Society of NUI Maynooth.

This is a very nice time of the year to get into some practical astronomy. The nights are getting longer and it’s getting dark earlier and earlier so you don’t have to stay up late to enjoy the wonders of the night sky. A few months from now the treasure’s of the winter sky will make their appearance but until then we have a last chance to admire the stars of our summer skies before they are gone for the year.

In particular this is a great time to enjoy the constellations that straddle the Milky-Way galaxy. Even with the most basic of binoculars scanning the band of the Milky-Way is a fascinating experience. So many stars all heaped on top of each other. I can’t help but wonder how many intelligent aliens are staring back at our little sun from those tiny pin-pricks of light.

While you’re scanning the Milky-Way with your binoculars you may as well have a go at tracking down some of the nice open clusters in the area. Probably the best of these is the double cluster in Perseus closely followed in my opinion by the V-shaped M39 at the top of Cygnus. Also worth tracking down is M34 also in Perseus and M52 in near-by Cepheus.

After you’ve tracked down those clusters you could also track down a must larger group of stars, the Andromeda galaxy just a little lower down in the sky at the top of the constellation of Andromeda. If you’re in a particularly dark location you can also try for the pinwheel galaxy, M33, in Triangulum. This is a huge galaxy that is so large on the sky it’s almost impossible to see in a telescope but can be quite easily seen with a pair of binoculars if the sky is dark enough.

Finally, over these months Mars will start to rise earlier and earlier in the sky as it charges towards us for it’s closest approach around Christmas time.

As part of a program to promote science at second level my Leaving Cert physics teacher asked me back to give a talk. I decided to focus on something that the curriculum certainly never does, the stuff we DON’T know. The curriculum teaches science as a set of laws and equations. It all seems very much set in stone, almost like commandments chiseled into tablets. What the curriculum doesn’t really teach kids is how science evolves or how it is evolving today. Right now scientists are trying to thrash out some really very fundamental questions about the universe we all live in. It’s the continuation of a never-ending epic struggle to better understand our universe. Students generally don’t get to see that, so I dedicated my talk to explaining just two of those very fundamental mysteries which scientists are trying to get to the bottom of right now.

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