Category Archives: Astronomy

How it ends

This month’s issue of Physics World features a review of mine, of the book How It Ends by astronomer Chris Impey. I’m always chuffed to be published in Physics World; as the flagship publication of the Institute of Physics it is a very good science magazine indeed, with well-informed commentary and articles of very high level by prominent researchers. PW also take their book reviews seriously; I notice both the front cover and editorial of this issue draw attention to the reviews.

As for the book: I enjoyed How It Ends greatly, it’s a fabulous read for any scientist or anyone with even a marginal interest in science. In a nutshell, Impey, a noted astronomer and astrobiologist, considers the ultimate fate of all things, from the future of the planet and all living things to the fate of the sun, the galaxies and the entire universe. As you can imagine, the book traverses a great many disciplines, from biology, biochemistry and ecology to geophysics, astrophysics and cosmology. However, it is written in a very lighthearted and accessible style that is extremely readable. PW magazine is members-only but you can read my review here….or better still go and buy the book.

Actually, the skill with which Impey handles his interdisciplinary tale is no coinicidence as he is associated with a well-known research group at Arizona State University  that specializes in astrobiology, a discipline that combines the very different disciplines of astrophysics and biology in order to investigate the conditions necessary for biological life to form. In fact, members of the Arizona group had some input into the major success in astrobiology we all just heard about- the discovery of lifeforms that can thrive on arsenic (as opposed to phosphorous), an important advance that broadens the scope for the possibility of life existing elsewhere.

So go and buy the book.


Filed under Astronomy, Science and society

Astronomy Ireland and IYA

Last Saturday, Astronomy Ireland hosted an extraordinary national meeting at the Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, in order to draw members’ attention to planned events to mark the UN International Year of Astronomy.

Astronomy Ireland (AI) is Ireland’s premier astronomy club and it promotes astronomy, space interest and science education all over the country. I first became aware of the club when I attended some great cosmology talks they hosted last year (see post on a lecture onThe Cosmological Distance Ladder by Micheal Rowan-Robinson here and on Dark Matter by Tim Sumner here); AI also organise observing sessions and other astronomy events nationwide, not to mention running astronomy classes in various institutions around the country. I attended their astronomy classes in our own college this semester and found them excellent (well done Emmet Mordaunt!).

Saturday’s meeting offered a packed program of talks, short films and discussions. First up was film producer and director Ginita Jimenez of film company Father Films, who described how she came to make a short film about Venetia Phair, the 11-year old Oxford schoolgirl who named the planet Pluto. I missed the beginning of Ginita’s talk, but her description of reading a short newspaper article on the topic and her subsequent discovery that Venetia had never actually seen the planet, was fascinating: with the demotion of Pluto to ‘dwarf planet’ status, she knew she had to make a film about the whole affair.

After Ginita’s introduction, we were treated to the Irish premiere of ‘Naming Pluto’. Sure enough, it was a beautiful little film: the discovery of a new planet from the perturbations in the orbit of Uranus, the naming of the planet by Venetia, granddaughter of Falconer Madan, ex-Head of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, the subsequent passing of the name to the powers that be in Flagstaff USA, it was all there. (I’m not sure how many of our students would have 11-year old Venetia’s knowledge of both astronomy and classical mythology – planets are generally named after Roman gods and Venetia suggested Pluto as he is the Roman god of the underworld). The second part of the film described an older Venetia’s visit to uber-astronomer Patrick Moore, a failed sighting, and then her first sighting of the planet she named all those years ago at the Science Observatory in Hertsmonceaux at age 89. The film finished with some moving shots of an aged Venetia telling her story to a group of wide-eyed students – straight out of C.S. Lewis, you could see them trying to imagine her as an 11-year old! If you want to know more, there is a summary of the story here and a nice trailer of the film on YouTube here; better still, why don’t you buy the film here.  

Robert Hill of the Armagh Planetarium and Northern Ireland Space Office then gave a lively overview of activities worldwide that are taking place to mark the International Year of Astronomy. The sort of activities involved are:

100 hours of astronomy: a round-the-clock event that features live webcasts from research observatories around the world

The Galileoscope ; the distribution of thousands of easy-to-assemble, easy-to-use telescopes to budding astronomers around the world: each telescope has about the same power as that available to Galileo

Cosmic Diary: an astronomy blog featuring regular posts by diverse professional astronomers

Portal to the universe; a one-stop web portal for astronomy that will feature astronomy content, acting as an index for press, educators and scientists

Dark Skies Awareness: a project promoting the awareness of light pollution

It was a great talk and you can find out more about the various activites on the IYA website.

AI founder and chairman David Moore also gave a talk, describing the activites of Astronomy Ireland for the year that’s in it, in particular the school lecture program and the teacher training program. He also described what individual members could do, from voluntary work to lobbying public representatives. A change of mission was highlighted: instead of confining itself to promoting astronomy, David sees AI as promoting a science culture in Ireland. He pointed out that while Ireland has a great culture in both arts and sports, it has no such culture in science, despite a great heritage in the subject. I think he is absolutely right in this and it strikes me that astronomy is a very good place to start to address the can find a list of the planned AI activities here or on the AI website.

David Moore (R) in interview at the Young Scientist Exhibition

After David’s talk, we were treated to another short film. 3-d glasses were handed out and Robert Hill presented a short spectroscopic tour of the universe. I won’t attempt to summarize the film, but there were some stunning graphics. You can get a flavour of it by taking the tour on the website of Celestia. As usual, I came away thinking just how insignificant our own little galaxy is in the wider scheme of things.

All in all, the meeting was a lively and informative event, with a serious mission behind it. Afterwards, we left the beautiful Science Gallery for some hot food and drinks at the pub across the road (it was an Irish meeting after all). There, discussions on the promotion of science continued for many hours…


I just heard from Ginita that Venetia died last week at the age of 90. Sad news, but I’m sure she enjoyed seeing the film in her final days. You can find a nice NYT obituary here. Ar dheis De do raibh a h-anam


Filed under Astronomy

ESA Mission to Mars

This week is Engineering Week in Ireland and it got off to a great start at WIT with a talk on space exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA) by Micheal McKay, the Belfast-born engineer who has acted as Flight Operations Director for ESA lunar and Mars missions. (The seminar was presented by CALMAST, the Centre for the Advancement of Learning of Mathematics, Science and Technology at WIT, see here for other science/engineering events this week).

Dr McKay started with a superb outline of space exploration in general and of the work of the European Space Agency in particular. He put great emphasis on practical applications such as:

– the monitoring of the earth’s climate via the ESA ERS satellites:

– the forthcoming ESA Galileo GPS network, an independent European satellite telecommuncations network, vital for air traffic contol and for air/sea rescue:

– the SOHO mission, a study of the interaction of solar output with the earth’s magnetic field with the ESA SOHO satellite:

– observations of the most distant galaxies using Far Object Cameras mounted on ESA satellities:

– the study of the atmosphere of Venus using an ESA satellite, gathering vital information on the greenhouse effect and its implications for the earth.

One of the ESA’s earth-monitoring satellites

A schematic of the ESA’s Galileo GPS system

McKay then went on to talk about the ESA’s greatest success – the Mars Express Orbiter. He gave a superb overview of the information got from the orbiter, despite the loss of the Beagle II Lander. Indeed, McKay spent a good deal of time on the Mars mission, explaining carefully that it was the Mars Express that established the first firm evidence for substantial ice/water at the south pole. At this point, the speaker described two great examples of the sort of thinking-outside-the box engineering solutions  necessary in his  job  – the slow rotation of the Mars orbiter into sunlight to free up a jammed hinge on one of the antennae, and a software ‘sunglasses’ patch to protect a sensitive detector from excess sun…both successfully completed from hundreds of millions of miles away!

The Mars Express Orbiter

McKay also spent some time explaining the next ESA Mars project, a  manned mission to Mars in 2030.  I won’t describe this part in detail, but you can find details of the Aurora mission here;

This ws a fine seminar and there were a few general themes  I liked a lot:

(i) ‘you too can do this’ – like so many at the top, the speaker continually emphasised to the students that they too had the potential for a great career in space exploration

(ii) the outstanding success of a relatively young European space agency (currently accounts for 40% of the global space market) and the fact that European citizens are not always aware of it

(iii) the spectacular benefits of European co-operation, and of the co-operation between ESA and NASA and other space agencies – nations seem to co-operate better in space than down here!

(iv) the importance of space exploration in its own terms for our knowlege of our universe, plus the beneficial spinoffs such as the ERS  earth observation missions

(v) the success of Ireland’s membership of ESA: not just in terms of commercial contracts gained, but the payback in terms of experience and knowledge brought back to Ireland, and the potential for fantastic careers in space exploration for the next generation of Irish science and engineering students

Interesting that many of these themes are precisely the advantages that I, and others, refer to as the potential benefits of Irish membership of CERN – see earlier post on CERN and Ireland.


At question time, I asked the speaker the stock question – given the expense of building the space station necessary for manned expeditions to Mars, what can a manned mission discover that robotics cannot? He answered this in detail, carefully listing the problems of communication and contol of robots. It will be interesting to see what happens in the context of the current recession..

All in all, this was an inspiring seminar for our students given by a top expert in the field.  For me, the highlights were a music video showing the docking of the ESA vessel Columbus to the International Space Station, and the description of the solutions to engineering problems with the Mars Express orbiter – from a software patch to protect a detector from excess sun, to the rotation of the station into sunlight to free up a jammed hinge!


Filed under Astronomy, Public lectures