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Chris Harris's Blog

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Last update: January 2020

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My new album Beyond is now available on Bandcamp. It's also on Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, Tidal, and all your other favourite streaming services.

My recent albums Generator and Fort are also available at Bandcamp, together with a wide selection of my earlier music.

NO BOOM?

The folks at Babylon Five know what I'm talking about:

MICHAEL GARIBALDI:
No boom?

COMMANDER SINCLAIR:
No boom.

SUSAN IVANOVA:
No boom today. Boom tomorrow. There's always a boom tomorrow.
What? Look, somebody's got to have some damn perspective around here!
Boom. Sooner or later. BOOM!

Over the last six weeks or so, discussion about the red supergiant star Betelgeuse has become one of the Internet's hot topics. Betelgeuse is the red star that makes up Orion's right shoulder (if you look at the constellation from the northern hemisphere, it's at the top left.) It's a main sequence star that's much more massive than the Sun (between ten and 30 times the Sun's mass) and it's nearing the end of its life, meaning that it has burnt most of the hydrogen in its core. Instead, Betelgeuse has been burning hydrogen in a shell round a core that is now mostly helium, which has caused it to expand and cool (hence the red colour). The subsequent evolution of a red supergiant is that it will then burn through the helium in its core, which can take several million years, at which point it will start burning carbon. When the carbon runs out, the star works its way up through the periodic table, burning through progressively heavier elements until the core becomes predominantly made of iron. At this point, the nuclear fusion holding the outer layers of the star away from the core can no longer take place and the star collapses on to it, triggering a supernova.

Red supergiants might be much cooler than our Sun at the surface, but nuclear fusion is still going on inside. This results in convection zones developing that reach from the surface to deep inside (over halfway to the core). If you saw Betelgeuse from nearby (but not too close!) it would look very different to our Sun. The surface would be lumpy and boiling and its shape is no longer perfectly spherical, but instead distorted and misshapen. Watch for long enough and you would also notice that, over time, the processes that are going on inside Betelgeuse affect its luminosity so that it dims and then gets bright again.

Betelgeuse's brightness (astronomers call it its magnitude) has been measured since the early part of the 20th Century, and it regularly dims and brightens again. What has got the Internet very excited is the fact that over the last five months, it has dimmed much more than it normally does. It currently shines only half as brightly as it did last summer. The word "unprecedented" started to be used in articles. More excitable commentators started talking about this behaviour being the precursor to Betelgeuse finally going boom.

Or, rather, having gone boom. Betelgeuse is approximately 700 light years away from us, so what we're currently looking at is how the star looked 700 years ago. As I said earlier this month, the speed of light is very fast, but space is very empty and the stars are very far apart. If it has gone boom, it won't pose a threat to us, but when the light arrives it will put on a spectacular show.

Betelgeuse may have already gone boom. But it's more likely that it has not. The general consensus at the moment seems to be that we're not about to see it explode, and it may not go boom for another hundred thousand years. No boom.

Probably.

ANOTHER THEORY

I dunno—you wait years for one challenger to the Standard Model of Cosmology to show up, and the next moment you're swamped with the things.

Now massive gravity is being seriously discussed as a way of explaining the observed expansion of the Universe without needing dark energy.

FEED YOUR HEAD

I've been favouring more sedentary activities this week. I've been having lots of problems sleeping and while I'm not in what I'd call pain, I've been feeling uncomfortable enough to resort to Ibuprofen once or twice, and it has definitely helped (as did the delicious haggis I had for supper last night to celebrate Burns' Night).

Fortunately for me, I've had plenty to read and watch.

Yesterday I finished reading Agency, the latest novel from my favourite author William Gibson. I really enjoyed it, and I'm mulling it over for a couple of days before I give it another read (something that's pretty much compulsory for one of his books, because they are so densely layered with the good stuff). You can read my review of the book (which I gave five stars, natch) over on my Goodreads page. And when I tweeted a link to my review, I got a retweet from Bill! #chuffed.

So far this weekend I've watched David Lynch's 17-minute short film from 2017, What did Jack do? twice on Netflix, where it appeared a few days ago. It's Classic Lynch, and as I seem to be in a reviewing mood at the moment I wrote a short one of it over at my Letterboxd page.

Something else that I've already watched twice is the first episode of Amazon Prime's new Star Trek series, Star Trek: Picard. I loved it. Science fiction is never really about the future; it's about the times it was written in, and that is very evident here. Patrick Stewart's take on a much older Picard is of a man who has lost faith in Starfleet, which—after a catastrophe in Picard's past that is revealed early on in the first episode—appears to have adopted an isolationist policy that makes it all too easy to draw parallels with Brexit. Picard is clearly (and quite rightly) having none of it. I loved the fact that the episode opens with the song Blue Skies—which Data sang at Riker and Troi's wedding while Worf bashed his head against the table muttering "Irving Berlin!" at the beginning of Star Trek: Nemesis. I loved the callback to the Daystrom Institute's Bruce Maddox, from the Next Generation episode The Measure of a Man. I loved the return to the Enterprise D's poker games (as featured in that episode from season 2). I think we're in safe hands, here. It makes me very hopeful for the direction the show seems likely to take, and I can't wait for Friday, when the next episode goes online.

LAPTOP UPDATE UPDATE

After I installed a new Solid State Drive (SSD) in my Dell laptop earlier this week, I've found myself using it regularly for the first time in over a year. Not only has the increase in speed given it a whole new lease of life, the fact that it's not continuously driving its hard disk at 100% has worked wonders for its power consumption. I was delighted to discover that a full charge on the new battery now gives me nearly four hours of use instead of the two I was getting with the hybrid drive. Oh, and the laptop's fans aren't coming on as often, either; it's running much cooler without the hard disk motor needing to run at full tilt. I'd be worried if it was, because it doesn't have a motor; being solid state, an SSD doesn't have any moving parts at all.

Returning a piece of equipment to full working order always makes me happy. It's the sort of thing I like to do for fun. It's also enabled me to resume my old habit of couch surfing in front of the TV, so I'm even happier.

Needless to say the old 1 Tb hybrid drive has been repurposed. A whole Terabyte of reasonably fast storage was much too useful to be left to gather dust on a shelf in the studio, so it's now been successfully installed in my main PC—which, as I hadn't opened it up in over a year, was looking rather dusty inside. The case fans have been very carefully vacuumed and the box given an internal spruce-up. As a result, it's noticeably quieter when it's switched on. The hybrid drive seems to be talking correctly to the motherboard too, as it's not being maxed out like it was in the laptop. In fact, in the tests I've run so far, I've struggled to push it past 5%!

Despite being under the weather, I actually feel like I've achieved something this week, however inconsequential it may seem to others. I'll take that.

PIMP MY LAPTOP EVEN MORE

I bought my trusty Dell XPS laptop back in 2012 and over the years I've upgraded it by maxing out the RAM, swapping the boring standard keyboard with a backlit one, and a replacing the original hard disk with a hybrid drive that I installed back in 2016. Last year I finally had replace the original battery and the new one has more than two hours of usable charge. But after one particular Windows 10 update last year, I started to notice that its hard disk was maxing itself out, and the performance advantage I had been getting with switching to a hybrid drive gradually went away. So this week I had another look at how much it would cost to switch to an equivalent-sized full SSD. To my surprise, the price was the same as I'd paid for a hybrid drive back in 2016, so I ordered one on the spot. It was delivered at lunchtime so I set to work installing it.

First off, a BIG shoutout to the disk cloning software Clonezilla which, although it looks like your machine has just BSOD'd on you, provides a free, no-fuss way to duplicate your OS on a new drive. The whole process of cloning took just over two and a half hours. Then it was a case of shutting the laptop down, opening it up, and swapping the drives over. As I'd already worked through the process once back in 2016 I knew just what to do and it took me less than five minutes.

Oh boy; it runs much, much faster. Faster than it did when I first got it and was running Windows 7 on it, in fact. The performance improvement is so good that I don't think I'll need to worry about buying a new laptop for quite a while. That was definitely money well spent!

FROSTY

After what feels like weeks of unrelenting rain, the series of low pressure areas passing over the UK has finally been replaced by high pressure. Yesterday morning, the barometer had skyrocketed up to 1030 hPa and it's still going up; I've just checked and it's currently 1043 hPa. As a result, the last couple of nights have been clear and cold, and the temperature dropped down to -4°C in the small hours of this morning. It's gone noon, and the thermometer has only just managed to get back above freezing outside, but the lawn in the back garden is still white with frost. Nevertheless, the sun is shining in a cloudless blue sky. It's a lovely day here.

For other people, winter has been a bit more problematic. A state of emergency has been declared in Newfoundland after a huge snowstorm dumped around 80 cm of snow on the city of St. John's. Yesterday my social media feed was full of videos of people snowboarding down the streets (you can watch some of them on the Guardian's page in that link). All businesses in the area, including the airport, have closed.

Cold weather notwithstanding, there's no prospect of a snow day on the horizon here, and to be honest I'm not disappointed by that. And I remain very glad that I replaced the double glazing on the house a couple of years ago; the difference in how long it stays warm in here after the heating goes off is extraordinary.

ANOTHER MODEL IN DOUBT?

It seems that it might not just be the Standard Model of Cosmology that is in doubt at the moment (see my previous blog entry below). The Standard Model of physics itself doesn't seem able to account for recent observations that have been made by NASA's ANtarctic Impulsive Transient Antenna (ANITA), a particle detector suspended from a balloon. On two separate occasions, the ANITA experiment detected high energy cosmic rays that, to NASA's surprise, were not arriving on their way down from space, but instead were coming up out of the ground—which suggests that they must have travelled through the entire Earth before colliding with the detector. Intriguingly, when colleagues at the Ice Cube neutrino detector, also based in Antarctica at the South Pole, looked for evidence that their equipment had picked up particles from a source in the direction of the ANITA events, they didn't find anything. And if a point source of neutrinos was responsible (that's the most likely candidate, according to the Standard Model), Ice Cube should have been more than capable of seeing the same event. So what is going on?

In a new paper published by Penn State university, researchers calculated that any particle capable of travelling through the Earth and generating an event equalling the energies of those seen by ANITA would have much less than a 1-in-3.5 million chance of being part of the Standard Model. In other words, the way that we currently think that particle physics works would really struggle to provide a mechanism to explain how such an event could take place. Having said that, it's worth noting that an anomaly in the ANITA detector's behaviour might be responsible for producing unanticipated results (remember the OPERA experiment in Gran Sasso in Italy that appeared to show neutrinos were travelling faster than light back in 2012?) but if the observations are genuine, people are already talking about supersymmetry with fresh enthusiasm as a possible explanation and have even suggested a particle from the proposed supersymmetry extension to the Standard Model known as the slau slepton as a likely candidate.

2020 is proving to be an interesting year for physics.

LET ME SLEEP

I don't know what's going on at the moment but I had an absolutely dreadful night's sleep last night. I think I finally drifted off at around 6:30 am, so I'm thanking my lucky stars that I'm not working at present, because in my last job at that time I'd have already been on the road for half an hour on my drive over to the office.

I'm going through a phase at the moment where I just can't seem to switch off. As I said to Helen at the weekend, I'm living far too much inside my own head. Part of this is because I've been spending most of my time on my own (I haven't talked to anyone at all in the last couple of days) but I have always had a tendency to lapse into complex rumination, whatever time of the day or night it is. I am, in simple terms, a worrier. And I always have been. And so each night I find myself worrying about half a dozen different things that I know full well I'm not likely to sort out in the small hours of the morning. Most of the things that I'm presently concerned with, frankly, are beyond my ability to solve; the effect of climate change and Brexit on the trajectory of my future is anyone's guess. My principal strategy for stopping the rumination is to read, but I've been so tired recently that I can't get through more than a dozen pages before I lose track of what I'm reading.

The tiredness is, I think, at the heart of the problem. If you read many of my entries in the Blog over the last few months you'll see how frequently I wrote about it. In recent weeks I've found it very difficult to find a position where I'm comfortable enough to get any sort of sleep at all, let alone deep sleep. It's been over a month now since I finished a set of tests at various hospitals to find out what is wrong with me; even though I passed a couple of kidney stones before Christmas, I've yet to be given a formal diagnosis. I'm hoping that arrives soon, and that whatever is wrong with me can be fixed (and that if it can, it can be done quickly.)

While I wait for news of what the next stage of my treatment is likely to be, I am concentrating on losing weight. My efforts stalled over Christmas (I wasn't going to make myself miserable during the festive season, after all) but we're now half-way through January and it's time for me to put some more discipline into my efforts. My fitness tracker has told me that I've beaten my fifteen-day personal best for activity twice since Monday, which is a promising start. But the principal change I'm making is to my diet; soup stops being a low-calorie option for a meal if you eat it with delicious, freshly baked (but extremely carb-heavy) ciabatta but that's just what I've been doing. I really need to lay off the starch—bread and potatoes— for a while. I've eaten the last of the Christmas mince pies, at least. I'm also cutting down on dairy produce, which means no more cheese. That crosses pizza off my list for a while, which I'm hoping will let me see some significant results relatively quickly.

Harsh? Yes. But if it means that I start getting a decent night's sleep, it'll be worth it.

NOT NECESSARILY DARK

We might not need dark energy to explain our observations of the Universe after all.

The further you look out into the Universe, the further back in time you go; when we observe something in the night sky that is 100 light years away, we're seeing it as it was a hundred years ago. The light from it that arrives today in our telescope has taken a hundred years to get here, because although light travels very fast indeed, it can't travel instantaneously.

In 1929, the astronomer Edwin Hubble measured the speeds of other galaxies to establish their motion relative to us. He did this by examining the spectra of stars in other galaxies and measuring how much the light from them was shifted towards the red end of the spectrum (meaning that the galaxy was moving away from us) or towards the blue end of the spectrum (meaning that the galaxy was moving toward us). This change in the frequency of light as a result of motion is a result of the Doppler effect, and happens for the same reason that the pitch of a fire engine's siren drops as it moves away from us. Hubble's observations revealed that almost all the other galaxies in the night sky were red-shifted, meaning that they were moving away from us. And when he measured the speeds at which they were moving, he discovered what is now known as Hubble's Law: the speed at which galaxies recede from us is proportional to their distance from us. This result could only be explained if the Universe was expanding. Hubble's work eventually led to the discovery of the Cosmic Microwave Background and confirmation that the Universe began some 13.7 billion years ago with the Big Bang.

Back in the 1990s, improvements in technology allowed astronomers to measure the rate at which the Universe is expanding at greater distances than had previously been possible. They did so by looking at a type of supernova that was believed to always explode with the same intrinsic level of brightness called a Type 1a supernova. Like Cepheid variable stars, type 1a supernovae had long been used as "standard candles" because it's possible to use their observed brightness to figure out exactly how far away they are. The problem that astronomers encountered back in the 90s was that the further away they looked, the slower the Universe seemed to be expanding. Remember, looking further away means looking back in time; if the Universe was expanding more slowly a couple of billion years ago, that means that something must be causing that expansion to speed up.

This wasn't the result that astronomers were expecting. In fact it was the very opposite of what they thought they would see. A second study of type 1a supernovae found the same result, so the first study didn't appear to be a fluke. What was going on? The model used to explain what was seen is known as the SMC, or Standard Model of Cosmology, and it relies on a mysterious form of energy called "Dark Energy" that is capable of acting as a reverse form of gravity to account for the speeding up. Like "Dark Matter" which is used to explain the invisible substance that must be present to account for the gravitational attraction holding galaxies together as they rotate, Dark Energy can't be directly observed and we don't know anything about the fields or particles that it uses to interact with the rest of the Universe. As Dark Matter is thought to make up roughly 25% of the total mass-energy of the Universe, and Dark Energy a whopping 70%, it means that ordinary baryonic matter (the stuff we can see and touch around us) only accounts for 5% of everything there is; somewhat embarrassing given Albert Michelson's famous "all that's left is tidying up" quote about physics made back in 1894:

"...it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous application of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice."

However, new research may spare those red faces. Indeed, it may even dispense with the need for Dark Energy entirely. This is because new observations of type 1a supernovae have revealed that they aren't the standard candles that they were thought to be. Instead, their levels of brightness change over time, depending on the age of the galaxy they occur in (probably because younger galaxies have fewer second- or third-generation stars which are rich in the elements heavier than iron that only get created during a supernova). If the brightness is different, any previous observations will probably have got the distances to them wrong. It's early days yet, but people are already talking about not needing Dark Energy any more, because the expansion of the Universe might not be accelerating after all.

If that's the case, it'll be the biggest shake up in cosmology in the past thirty years.

READ ON

I love reading. I always have, particularly at times when I haven't been feeling my best. It probably comes as no surprise, then, for me to say that I've been reading a lot over the past few weeks. Once again I've joined in the Goodreads reading challenge and this year I've set myself a target of reading sixty books. That's the same target that I set myself last year, and I eventually read over 70 books in 2019. So far this year I've read four books, so I'm already way ahead of the pace to reach my target.

You can follow my progress and read reviews of the books I've read so far this year here.

OVER ONCE AGAIN

The decorations have been taken down, the tree has been disassembled and put back in the loft, and I've vacuumed up all the needles that had dropped off it as I took it apart (an element of authenticity that I could have done without, frankly). It feels dark in here without the Christmas lights on. But the room feels a lot larger without a seven-foot fake tree taking up space.

So Christmas is over. At the moment I'm trying not to think too much about the state of the outside world, because things do not look great out there right now. As several memes are already pointing out, the phrase most prevalent in 2020 looks like being "Well, that escalated quickly..."

On a personal level I've not been feeling great for the last week or so. I'm still waiting to hear back from the consultant that I saw at the beginning of December. I'm not in too much pain at the moment and trying to avoid taking painkillers too often, but I'm not sleeping well. Kidney stones (if that is what is wrong with me) are no fun.

TEN YEARS ON

It's 8°C outside right now. Back in 2010 I was writing about the cold snap that had gripped the country and two days later, I was posting photographs taken during heavy snow here. There's no sign of snow in the current forecast and the Met Office have provisionally announced that last month was the warmest December on record.

I also see from ten years ago that I was grumbling about the quality of the writing on Doctor Who. I haven't even watched the latest episode, which was broadcast on New Year's Day. I'll probably give it a spin on iPlayer out of idle interest, but sadly it's no longer the must-watch event that it used to be for me. This is not meant as criticism of Jodie Whitaker and the rest of the current cast, who have acquitted themselves admirably in the episodes I've seen. They just don't have much in the way of exciting material to work with. These days, that's unforgivable, because the quality of the top tier of television shows has skyrocketed over the last decade. The writing on Doctor Who hasn't kept up with the competition, and I suspect its budget has been cut to the bone. It frequently looks cheap, relying on wonky CGI to provide a wow factor that frequently misses the mark.

Doctor Who also struggles more and more with novelty. This is probably driven by the need to maintain its nostalgic appeal to the parents of the children who make up its core demographic. It's a show that has become suffocatingly conscious of its "brand" since it was relaunched, and its need to constantly call back villains from episodes broadcast more than fifty years ago has crippled its ability to be innovative for more than short bursts. If I never see another episode featuring the Cybermen, for example, it will be too soon. I hate the Cybermen. Being cast as a Cyberman is the sort of role that you'd want hidden on your iMDB profile. Actors are unfailingly directed to play them with all the subtlety or menace of an end-of-year primary school drama production. They're the pantomime horse of science fiction monsters.

In comparison I've spent hours over the Christmas break binge-watching episodes of The Expanse, Lucifer, and yes, even The Witcher (which, despite being grotesquely, utterly, jaw-droppingly violent has a goofy, idiotic charm that drops it very decisively in the "so bad it's good" category. I'll keep watching, too; I'm not proud.) Watch an episode or two of The Expanse in particular and you really see how far behind Doctor Who has fallen. The first three seasons of the show are set in the entire Solar System, and we get to see it in all of its glory. Then when we get to season four, that turns out to just be the warm-up...

Some shows will still provoke intense anticipation for me, even new ones: later this month, I'm hoping that Sir Patrick Stewart and his pals will show us exactly what a proper science fiction television series made in the 2020s should look like. Picard drops on Amazon Prime on the 23rd. And I can't wait to see it.

TWO HUNDRED BLOGS LATER...

When I started the Blog way back in 2003, more than sixteen years ago, I didn't expect that come 2020 I'd still be regularly posting entries to it. Back then, 2020 was the distant future; it was a time where the film Blade Runner would be set in the past, after all. It was the epitome of unknown territory for me; it wasn't just the future, but the future of the future. Over the years I've got used to favourite science fiction shows and films moving from being set in the future to being part of the past. Gerry Anderson's UFO (filmed in 1970 and set in 1980) was the first example I can remember, but I enjoyed the alternative-timeline buzz when people noticed that they were living in the time of events from Escape From New York (set in 1997), Space: 1999 (the events of the episode "Breakaway" take place on September 13th), 2001: A Space Odyssey and its sequel 2010: The Year We Make Contact, and perhaps most famously (because doctored stills with the wrong dates went viral several times over the years) Back To The Future Part 2 (which was set in 2015). Now those films have been joined by Blade Runner together with Akira and The Running Man, which were also set in 2019.

An awful lot of water has flowed under the bridge since I fired up notepad to code the HTML of that first Blog. Dipping in to random pages from the Blog over the years reminds me that it's been quite a ride. I've had some fantastic peak experiences since I started blogging, but it's not been plain sailing by any means, and I've also been through some crushing lows. But I'm still here, and still writing. And so today I've started to fill in the last column of the sixth row in my Blog Archive page. This post starts the 200th consecutive month in which I've uploaded at least one update to the Blog. That's what this month's banner graphic is celebrating.

So off we go into the next hundred months. If I'm still around, I'll hit the 300 mark with the May 2028 blog. At the moment, that really feels like the distant future.