Toujours Blog

Chris Harris's Blog Archive: April 2014

April was one of the more eventful months I've had since I started the blog. The place where I've worked for the last 19 years is moving away from developing computer based training and they shut down the team I was in. It was sad news, but not exactly unwelcome. It's time to move on. Luckily I'm in the position where I can take some time to decide exactly where it is I want to move to. No doubt the blog will record those considerations as they take place...


This morning felt more like October than the end of April. It was very windy and a steady drizzle was falling out of a leaden sky. One of my friends described the weather as "dreich" on Twitter and it's the perfect word to use: cold, grey, misty, clammy, damp and miserable, summed up in a single word of one syllable.

Down the road at Slimbridge, the swallows have arrived in force so summer can't be far away. I just wish it would get on with it. I read the first news story predicting that 2014 would be the hottest summer ever back in February but there don't seem to be many signs of that happening at the moment. Although the rain has stopped this afternoon and there are patches of blue sky to be seen, the weather forecast says it'll be raining again in a few hours and it will continue to do so for the rest of the weekend.


Parkes Observatory in Australia might be best known these days for the fact that Sam Neill played cricket in it in the excellent movie The Dish, but for the past fifty years it's played a vital role in space science. One phenomenon that Parkes has been detecting over the last decade are things called Fast Radio Bursts (FRBs) - intense bursts of radio frequencies that last just five thousandths of a second. Because they're so short, they're difficult to detect, although scientists have predicted from the observations they have made that they should be happening thousands of times every day.

Nobody knows what they are, but the fact that the wavelengths of the signal are smeared out (the shorter wavelengths arrive before the longer wavelengths) means that if they are a real phenomenon, they are likely to occur a very long way away. The problem was that since the first FRB was detected in 2007, the team at Parkes have been the only people to record these occurrences. That meant it was possible that they were being caused in some unknown way by the telescope equipment itself, but now a team at the Arecibo telescope in Puerto Rico (famous for another memorable movie scene, where 007 fights 008 in Goldeneye) has also detected an FRB.

By measuring the signal's dispersion, the team at Arecibo confirmed that the most likely source of these signals is so far away that it lies outside our galaxy. But because the signal source is only a few hundred kilometres across, what's going on must involve staggering amounts of energy. In fact the bursts are so powerful that their most likely cause is that a collapsed spinning star (called a pulsar) is momentarily doing something unusual, but just what is going on is a mystery. We may be seeing what happens when a large neutron star's spin slows down to the point where centrifugal force no longer overcomes the force of gravity and it collapses into a black hole (an event that's been dubbed a blitzar) but other explanations exist too. This certainly counts as one of science's "that's interesting..." moments. I can't wait to see what we'll discover as a result.


I spent a very enjoyable Easter in Solihull with Rebecca and the Twins, catching up on things, and generally chilling out despite drinking far too much coffee. I drove up on the Friday morning, and the traffic wasn't too bad. For people heading southbound it really wasn't a Good Friday. The M5 was nose-to-tail from just north of Michael Wood Services down to the Avonmouth junction south of Bristol, a stretch of about 20 miles. That will have done nothing to ease Bristol's reputation as the traffic congestion capital of the country; Bristol is beaten only by Belfast in the rest of the UK. I was very glad I was going north. I was able to potter along and enjoy the sunshine without any holdups and the Juke was giving me over 43 mpg on the motorway. Shirley and Solihull were both very busy, but the satnav took me through the back streets without any problems. Rob and Ruth both travelled over from Wales and they arrived a few hours later, at tea time.

The weather wasn't really up to much during the weekend but I had a lovely time and on Sunday evening we drank a toast or two to changing circumstances. It's the end of an era in Solihull as much as it is here, as Becs put the house on the market this week. When the estate agent's photographer came round on Saturday he'd forgotten the memory card for his camera, so I ended up taking the photos for him. The Canon EF-S 10-22mm lens that I used made quite an impression and the photos show the house in a very good light, if I say so myself.

It was also the end of an era for Rob, as he swapped his first ever car, a maroon Ford Fiesta, for... a maroon Ford Fiesta. The new one has half the miles on the clock that the old one has, and does not feature items of bodywork held on by gaffa tape (thanks to someone driving into it while it was parked and driving off without leaving a note). In fact the new car looks immaculate. I'm sure Rob will admit that it's a bit more "chavved up" than the old one, but it's in good nick, it's got alloy wheels and front fog lamps, and the radio actually works.

The weekend didn't go entirely according to plan, it must be said: on Sunday morning when we'd finished breakfast we opened our Easter eggs only to find that someone - or rather something - had beaten us to it. Poor Ruth was very upset. Half of her Easter egg had been nibbled away, and there was mouse poop in the bottom of the box. The mice had made a fair start on my egg, too. So it was time to get a mousetrap out of the shed and bait it with what was left of the eggs...


Saturday night found the four of us standing in the back garden at just after nine o'clock at night, looking to the south west. Needless to say it was Ruth who first shouted "There it is!" when she spotted the International Space Station making a particularly bright pass over the UK. In fact the ISS was brighter than Jupiter, which was visible almost directly south of us.

This pass was an interesting one, because a couple of hundred miles behind it we spotted a second much fainter object, following the same course. It was SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft, chasing down the ISS to deliver its cargo of supplies. Maybe it was the cold (it was chilly enough that I started shivering), but it didn't occur to me to try and take a photo. Even if I had, I'd have been hard-pressed to beat the folks in the Netherlands who successfully snapped the Dragon and its Falcon 9 booster rocket on Friday, just 23 minutes after it launched from Florida. The robotic spacecraft arrived successfully on Easter Sunday.


The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Network uses a set of 300 detectors to detect explosions caused by countries detonating nuclear weapons either in the open air or underground. Such tests are prohibited by international law, but if anyone decides to ignore all the test ban treaties, the dectectors can pick up the radionucleides created when an atomic bomb goes off, and infrasound detectors can pick up the blast waves as they circle the globe after the detonation. That's enough to establish the location of the offending blast.

But the network has also proved very useful in locating explosions that aren't caused by nuclear weapons. So far this century, the network has picked up 26 huge explosions on Earth caused by asteroids hitting the atmosphere. Most of them occurred over the Earth's oceans. It's only when they do arrive over populated areas, like the meteor that broke up over Chelyabinsk last year with the energy of half a million tons of TNT, that they hit the headlines.

The thing is, the rate at which these explosions happen is roughly ten times what we thought it was; Russia saw another big meteor this week. And as the video commentary in the Gizmodo link says, sooner or later our luck is going to run out and one of these things will explode at low level over a city. That is not going to be pleasant. Because just imagine if one went off over Kiev, or Moscow, or Pyongyang in the next few months. Do you think anyone would stop to think, "Oh, that must have been an asteroid strike"? The sooner systems are put in place to detect threats before they happen, the safer we'll all be.


I wish we'd had physics demonstrations like this when I was a kid. I recommend watching this memorable visualisation of acoustic standing waves by Sune Nielson and the Fysikshow gang, because music always sounds better when it's ON FIRE.


It's been a long time coming, and if things had stayed as they are I probably wouldn't have done anything about it, but life doesn't always give you the option of standing still and circumstances have pushed me into making the leap, so...

Moving On

My trusty old Asus Eee netbook has booted Windows XP for the last time. This week as support for Microsoft's operating system finally concluded I wiped the hard disk and installed Linux Mint on it. Unlike the Government, I don't have several million quid lying around to pay for further upgrades, so I decided it was best to make a clean break and start afresh.

I chose Mint because it's a well-respected distro, and I'm running the xfce desktop because it's light on resources and clean and efficient. I'm really pleased with things so far, and it's nice to have a computer running Linux again.


It's been a long time coming, and if things had stayed as they are I probably wouldn't have done anything about it, but life doesn't always give you the option of standing still and circumstances have pushed me into making the leap, so...

After nineteen years I will be leaving my current job at the end of this month. I have no idea what I'll be doing next. I 'm not rushing into anything, as I have the luxury of being able to stop and take stock of things for a while first, but it still feels like the end of an era. But I've decided to make a clean break and start afresh. I have a number of things that I'm planning on doing in the next couple of months which might turn out to be great fun if they pay off - but at the moment, to borrow Edwyn Collins's phrase, The Possibilities Are Endless.


One thing that struck me as odd about the graphic for the "skydiver hit by meteorite" story that I blogged about last week was that the rock is very close to the skydiver when it's first seen. It's almost as if it appeared there when the parachute was deployed. And the Bad Astronomer himself, Phil Plait reckons that that is exactly what happened: the rock wasn't a meteorite at all. If it was packed with the parachute, it would have fallen out as the skydiver pulled his ripcord and tumbled past. It's a plausible theory, and Occam's razor suggests that it's the most likely explanation. Which is a shame.


I saw Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier this week and I have written a review. However, be warned: there was a point in the film where I actually said "oh bloody hell" out loud. I'd just heard a line of dialogue which, to me, strongly suggested who the character The Clairvoyant is in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD. Don't read my review unless you're happy to find out all about that.


A few years ago I read a great book by Maryanne Wolf called Proust and the Squid. It's about the way we read and the way the brain has evolved to support such a pleasant and life-changing activity. This week Wolf cropped up in an article in the Washington Post about how reading stuff online is changing the way the brain analyses text, and it is not a reassuring story. In fact it's frightening. Reading too much on the Internet can damage your ability to parse complex sentences, and it encourages you to skim things, pick out keywords, and hare off on diverting threads. Or, as Wolf describes it,

After a day of scrolling through the Web and hundreds of e-mails, she sat down one evening to read Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game.”

“I’m not kidding: I couldn’t do it,” she said. “It was torture getting through the first page. I couldn’t force myself to slow down so that I wasn’t skimming, picking out key words, organizing my eye movements to generate the most information at the highest speed. I was so disgusted with myself.”

I've noticed in recent years that I do this too, and I had just put it down to the fact that I'm not as young as I used to be. I was bemoaning the fact that I couldn't take something in on my first reading back in 2010. But since I read the article, I've made a greater effort to read more text on paper, and I agree with what Wolf says later on in the article: by giving yourself time and distance from screen-based text you can regain the ability to read things properly again. The ability to "slow down, savor and think" is one to be cherished, and encouraged. So if you'll excuse me, I'm off to spend the rest of the afternoon in my favourite armchair with a good book.


It's been an eventful few days and as a result the blog's going to be on hiatus for a while, by the looks of things. Things will get back to normal when things get back to normal, whenever (and whatever) that may be. In the meantime, here's a video of a Norwgian skydiver nearly getting hit by a meteor.


I'm not even going to attempt to list some of the dismally tedious and grindingly inevitable April Fool's jokes that the jolly media played on us this year because apart from CERN setting their entire website to display in Comic Sans, there wasn't a chuckle to be had from any of them.