Archive for Astrophysics

Gay Astronomers – At Last Some Data!

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on June 1, 2015 by telescoper

Some time ago I wrote a blog post entitled Where are all the LGBT Astrophysicists. I wrote that piece when I accidentally discovered that somebody had recently written a blog post (about Einstein’s Blackboard) which mentions me. I used to look after this famous relic when I was in Nottingham many years ago, you see.

There’s a sentence in that post that says

Professor Coles is one of the few out gay astrophysicists in the UK.

Well, it all depends by what you mean by “few” but at the time I wrote that  I thought there are more gay (or lesbian or bisexual or transgendered) astrophysicists out there than most people probably think. I know quite a large number personally- dozens in fact- most of whom are “out”. It’s a safe bet that there are many more who aren’t open about their sexuality too. However, it is probably the case that LGBT scientists are much less visible as such through their work than colleagues in the arts or humanities. Read two research papers, one written by a straight astrophysicist and one by an LGBT astrophysicist, and I very much doubt you could tell which is which. Read two pieces of literary criticism, however, and it’s much more likely you could determine the sexual orientation of the writer.

You might ask why it matters if an astrophysicist or astronomer is straight or gay? Surely what is important is whether they are good at their job? I agree with that, actually. When it comes to career development, sexual orientation should be as irrelevant as race or gender. The problem is that the lack of visibility of LGBT scientists – and this doesn’t just apply to astrophysics, but across all science disciplines – could deter young people from choosing science as a career in the first place.

Anyway, at last we have some evidence as to whether this might be the case. In 2014 the Royal Astronomical Society (of which I am a Fellow) carried out a demographic survey of its membership. This happens from time to time but this one was the first to include a question about sexual orientation. The Institute of Physics did a similar survey about Physics about a decade ago, but did not include sexual orientation among its question, so this is the first time I’ve seen any data about this from a systematic survey. The results are quite interesting. About 7% of UK respondents (from a total of around a thousand) refused to answer the sexual orientation question but, among those who did, 3% identified themselves as bisexual and 4% as gay men. Both these proportions are significantly higher than the figures for the general UK population reported by the Office of National Statistics. The fraction of respondents in the RAS Survey declaring themselves to be heterosexual was 84%, whereas the corresponding figure from the ONS Survey was 93.5%. The number of UK respondents in the RAS Survey identifying as lesbian was only 0.2%; the proportion of respondents identifying themselves as male was 77.5% versus 21.3% female, which accounts for only some of the difference between gay and lesbian proportions.

So, according to the survey, gay men are actually significantly over-represented in the Royal Astronomical Society compared to the general population. That confirms the statement I made earlier that there are more gay astronomers than you probably think.  It also shows that there is no evidence that gay men are deterred from becoming astronomers. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. It’s a different story when it comes to other demographics, however. The RAS membership is older, less ethnically diverse, and more male-dominated than the the general population, so there’s a lot of work to be done redressing the balance there.

On the other hand, next time the Royal Astronomical Society is looking to elect a President it will naturally want to find someone who is representative of its membership, which means an ageing white gay male. I rest my case.

 

Advertisements

Do-It-Yourself Supernova Explosion

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on August 15, 2014 by telescoper

Visitors to the office of the Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex often remark upon the presence of these two objects and inquire as to their purpose:

Supernova

Since I don’t play golf and am a bit long in the tooth to be a fan of Peppa Pig, most assume that it must be for some strange astrophysical reason. I tried asking on Twitter what people think I use them for, and the most common answer was to demonstrate the relative size of the Earth and Moon. As Roy Walker would have said, “That’s a good answer, but it’s wrong”.

In fact I use the objects concerned to demonstrate what goes on when a star goes supernova.

The point is that a supernova explosion begins with gravitational collapse of the progenitor star, so why does that manifest itself as an explosion? The point is that the outer layers are blown off while the core collapses into a compact object such as a neutron star or, perhaps, a black hole.

The way to demonstrate this is first to balance the golf ball (representing the outer layers) on top of the beach ball; the air hole in the latter is a useful place to do this. You then lift the conjoined objects to a reasonable height and drop them onto the table or bench provided for such a purpose in a lecture theatre. The objects fall together under gravity until the beach ball hits the surface. You will find that the beach ball (representing the core) stops still while the golf ball (representing the outer shells) shoots upwards as most of the kinetic energy of the system is transferred to it during the bounce.

I think this is quite an effective demonstration, but I’d encourage inexperienced lecturers to note that there is a Health and Safety Issue, so it is necessary to carry out a risk assessment before attempting it. When I first did this during a lecture many years ago, I used a ball bearing rather than a golf ball and a fully-inflated and much larger beach ball instead of the more manageable (and slightly deflated) Peppa Pig one I now use. I told the students in the audience to watch carefully what happened and then dropped them as described above…

What happened in that case was that the ball bearing rocketed up so fast that it reached the ceiling and smashed into the lights above the lecturer’s bench, whereupon there was a very loud bang and I was showered with broken glass and other debris. I have to say that got the loudest round of applause I’ve ever had while lecturing, but it wasn’t exactly the effect I’d been hoping for.

But the real reason for posting today is to wish a very happy 65th birthday to supernova expert extraordinaire and occasional reader of this blog, Robert Kirshner of Harvard University, who has celebrating along with a number of my astro-chums at a conference in Australia.

Many happy returns, Bob!

Fly through of the GAMA Galaxy Catalogue

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2014 by telescoper

When I’m struggling to find time to do a proper blog post I’m always grateful that I work in cosmology because nearly every day there’s something interest to post. I’m indebted to Andy Lawrence for bring the following wonderful video to my attention. It comes from the Galaxy And Mass Assembly Survey (or GAMA Survey for short), a spectroscopic survey of around 300,000 galaxies in a region of the sky comprising about 300 square degrees;  the measured redshifts of the galaxies enable their three-dimensional positions to be plotted. The video shows the shape of the survey volume before showing what the distribution of galaxies in space looks like as you fly through. Note that the galaxy distances are to scale, but the image of each galaxy is magnified to make it easier to see; the real Universe is quite a lot emptier than this in that the separation between galaxies is larger relative to their size.

The faces of highly followed astronomers on Twitter

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on February 28, 2014 by telescoper

On Twitter? Looking for an astronomer or astrophysicist to follow? Here’s a Rogues Gallery…

 

 

Astrophysics Made Simple

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags on November 21, 2013 by telescoper

nz019

Cartoon stolen without proper permission from Strange Matter.

Sussex Astronomy Research – The Videos!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2013 by telescoper

As autumn turns to winter the thoughts of many an undergraduate turn to the task of applying for PhDs. Nowadays this involves a lot of trawling through webpages looking for interesting projects and suitable funding opportunities.

In order to help prospective postgraduates this year, the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex has produced a number of videos to give some information about the available projects. To start with, here are four examples, covering topics in theoretical, computational and observational astrophysics:

For information, we’re expecting to offer at least six PhD studentships in Astronomy for September 2014 entry. Also there’s a University-wide postgraduate open day coming up on December 4th..

Welcome to Astronomy (unless you’re female)

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2013 by telescoper

I’m here on campus preparing to attend a series of receptions at the start of Freshers’ Week to welcome new students to the University of Sussex. Over the next few days I’m going to be involved in a lot of events aimed at helping all our new undergraduate students settle in, before teaching starts properly. There’ll also be events for our new postgraduates, at both Masters and Doctoral levels.

Every year the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) funds an Introductory Summer School for new postgraduate research students in Astronomy. It’s held at a different university each year and is a long-running tradition. I attended such a School at Durham University way back in 1985, long before STFC was invented! We organized and ran one at Nottingham while I was there and last year the corresponding fixture was held at Sussex University, though that was before my time here and I wasn’t involved in it at all. This year, the Introductory Summer School was held at Queen Mary, University of London (often abbreviated to QMUL).

I spent eight happy years at Queen Mary (from 1990-98) so it pains me to have to criticize my friends and former colleagues there, but I really feel that I have to. Look at the programme for the Summer School. You will see that 18 (eighteen) lecturers were involved, covering virtually all areas of current research interest in the field. There is not a single female lecturer among them.

Yesterday I blogged about the invisibility of LGBT astrophysicists, but this is a glaring example of the problems facing female scientists embarking on a career in the same discipline. What message does a male-only programme send to aspiring female astronomers and astrophysicists? The lack of female speakers probably wasn’t deliberate, but was clearly thoughtless. Discrimination by omission is real and damaging. I mean no disrespect at all to the lecturers chosen, but looking through the topics covered I could easily have picked a female alternative who would have done just as good a job, if not better.

I think this is a scandal. I’ll be writing a letter of complaint to STFC myself, and I encourage you to do likewise if you agree. It’s too late to do anything about this year’s School, of course, but STFC must make sure that nothing like this happens again.