Stargazing (virtually) Live

I hope you’ve all been tuning in to the BBC’s astronomy jamboree Stargazing Live. There have been two episodes so far, with one last one to follow tonight, plus a huge range of activities across the country (including Wales) giving members of the public the chance to look at the sky through telescopes. The programmes and other activities have been getting an excellent response, especially from the younger generation, which is excellent news for the future of astronomy.

Working in a School of Physics & Astronomy makes one realise just how much public interest there is in astronomy, not just among schoolkids but in the numerous amateur astronomical societies, the members of which actually know the night sky better than many professionals! Most of us astronomers and astrophysicists are regularly asked to give public lectures and Cardiff in particular runs a  host of other outreach activities related to our astronomy research. Our colleagues in mainstream physics subjects such as condensed matter physics don’t get the same level of direct public interest – I don’t think there are any amateur semiconductor physics  clubs in the UK! – but many students attracted into universities by astronomy do turn to other branches of physics when they get here, because something else catches their imagination.

But important though that role is, let’s not forget that astronomy isn’t just about outreach. It’s actually real science, making real discoveries about the way our universe works. It’s worth doing in its own right as well as being good for other branches of physics.

Anyway, being a theoretical astrophysicist I usually feel a bit left out of these stargazing actitivies because I don’t really know one end of a telescope from the other. The other day I jokingly  asked whether Stargazing Live was ever going to include a theory component…

Last night’s episode actually did, in the form of a discussion of a numerical simulation of galaxy formation between the presenters and young Dr Andrew Pontzen from Oxford University. He even made a little video about the simulation, sort of virtual reality rendition of the formation of the Milky Way, as shown on the telly:

Apparently, making this required 300,000 CPU hours on 300 processors and it is based on 16 Terabytes of raw data. Phew!

It’s a very impressive simulation, but the use of the word simulation in this context always makes me smile. Being a crossword nut I spend far too much time looking in dictionaries but one often finds quite amusing things there. This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines SIMULATION:


a. The action or practice of simulating, with intent to deceive; false pretence, deceitful profession.

b. Tendency to assume a form resembling that of something else; unconscious imitation.

2. A false assumption or display, a surface resemblance or imitation, of something.

3. The technique of imitating the behaviour of some situation or process (whether economic, military, mechanical, etc.) by means of a suitably analogous situation or apparatus, esp. for the purpose of study or personnel training.

It’s only the third entry that gives the intended meaning. This is worth bearing in mind if you prefer old-fashioned analytical theory!

In football, of course, you can get sent off for simulation…

19 Responses to “Stargazing (virtually) Live”

  1. “Apparently, making this required 300,000 CPU hours on 300 processors and it is based on 16 Terabytes of raw data. Phew!”

    Wow! That puts it in the same league as King Kong’s hair. (The Jackson remake featured a computer-generated beast, not a man in an ape suit. The rendering was quite complex. The 1976 remake with a man in an ape suit won an Oscar for special effects. How times have changed.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Surely a man in a gorilla suit is a lot cheaper? Or would he have been required to do impossible stunts?

      Reminds me of the hi-tech biro that NASA developed at great expense for astronauts in zero-g. The Russians used pencils.

    • telescoper Says:

      Actually an ordinary biro works well in zero-g. They only fail when you hold them upside down because gravity is working against them.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      That surprises me because I once held a biro as horizontal as I could and it soon stopped working. (Yes, I did an experiment.) Have you a reference?

      • telescoper Says:

        It was on QI.

        But a quick google found this quote from astronaut Pedro Duque, written in 2003,

        I am writing these notes in the Soyuz with a cheap ballpoint pen … I’ve been working in space programmes for 17 years, 11 of these as an astronaut, and I’ve always believed, because that is what I’ve always been told, that normal ballpoints don’t work in space. ‘The ink doesn’t fall’, they said … During my first flight I took with me one of those very expensive ballpoint pens with a pressure ink cartridge, the same as the other Shuttle astronauts. But the other day I was with my Soyuz instructor and I saw he was preparing the books for the flight, and he was attaching a ballpoint pen with a string for us to write once we were in orbit. Seeing my astonishment, he told me the Russians have always used ballpoint pens in space. So I also took one of our ballpoint pens, courtesy of the European Space Agency (just in case Russian ballpoint pens are special), and here I am, it doesn’t stop working and it doesn’t ‘spit’ or anything. Sometimes being too cautious keeps you from trying, and therefore things are built more complex than necessary.

        Incidentally, it appears the Russian’s did not use pencils – it appears that’s an urban myth – bits of graphite snapping off would be quite dangerous in a spacecraft.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        At a guess, the Russians took soft pencils unlikely to splinter (remember BB, HB, HH etc) *and* biros on their first missions, and found that the biros worked OK. But I’m surprised. Did they give the biros an occasional flip by holding them and snapping their wrists, so that rotational forces pressed the ink toward the end? Try a horizontal biro for yourself – it’s easy enough to hold it horizontal in a vice and run a piece of cardboard against it.

      • telescoper Says:

        Held horizontally, gravity may cause the ink to settle in the tube in such a way that it doesn’t cover the ball uniformly. Possibly.

      • telescoper Says:

        Speaking personally, I always use crayons.

      • Anton Garrett Says:


      • Anton Garrett Says:

        “it appears the Russian’s did not use pencils”

        The Russian’s what? And which Russian?

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m mortified by the grocer’s apostrophe there, and will leave it in place as a penance.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      This subthread plugs very naturally into the scene in 2001 where one of a bunch of apes (actually actors in gorilla suits) throws a bone into the air and it morphs into a spacecraft in a zero-g situation. The subsequent waltz of the spacecraft to the Blue Danube is one of my favourite scenes in all cinema.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Just as long as the simulation is not called an ‘experiment’.

    Haven’t larger calculations been done in eg the search for prime numbers?

    Also, I thought your definition 1 was that of DISsimulation.

    • telescoper Says:

      I looked up dissimulation and it gives (virtually) the same definition. There are quite a few examples in English where two words that look like antonyms have the same meaning, e.g. flammable and inflammable (cf. visible and invisible).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I like Antonyms.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Who could have predicted, based on the content of this post, that the comments would end up focussing on whether biros work in space?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      In the late 1960s I pestered my parents into buying me a Fisher Space Pen and for many of my teenage years it was my most treasured material possesion that was unequivocally mine. I still have it in a drawer but eventually stopped using it because it was slim and it required quite a lot of pressure to write – no chance of using both sides of the paper. But it did do what it claimed – upside down, under water, wide temperature range, etc.

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