Cool videos

Back in March I linked to a video of the Earth setting behind the moon from Japan’s Selene probe. Here is another one of those things that really gets your ‘sense of wonder’ juices flowing: video (okay, technically an animation of many still images) of the Moon passing in front of the Earth. This was taken from about 50 31 million miles by Nasa’s Deep Impact probe, which is all finished with its primary cometary mission and is hanging around the solar system drinking beer and spraying graffiti on asteroids until its next comet turns up.

More details, and an infrared version in which the continents are more visible, at the Nasa site.

And finally…

After tomorrow Dr. Horrible becomes paid download only, so get your fix now.

Outer Space, Cyborgs and Dragons

Things that share little in commmon except that I saw them recently:

The Phoenix has landed. The Mars probe, that is. That’s a bit of a relief. Watching the video of everything it had to do on its descent I was a little sceptical1.

Sadly this good fortune does not extend to the pair of 200 year old pistols allegedly forged from meteoric iron, whose extraterrestial heritage has been disproven. They still look pretty in their own right, though.

There’s some kind of slick link here to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull which looks to be having a good box office weekend despite a fairly mixed critical reception. We saw it yesterday, and I enjoyed it a lot while not really rating it as a great film. Certainly it was about as entertaining as Last Crusade, and nowhere near the level of godlike perfection that is Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Meanwhile Iron Man continues to rake in the cash (almost certainly fuelled by my review).

Terminator 4, which still seems to be called Terminator Salvation despite recent suggestions to the contrary, has an official website with a good-looking bit of pre-production art. Frankly the only announcement so far that has made me feel positive about this trilogy is Christian Bale’s involvement, but the concept of a post-apocalyptic trilogy is potentially a great one.

Peter Jackson and Guillermo Del Toro webchat about The Hobbit and The Hobbit 2. Following my poll to scientifically determine the title of the second film (“Back in the Hobbit” being the clear winner), Del Toro kindly tells us: “not ‘H2 Electric Boogaloo’, that has been discarded.” So that’s a relief. In a further display of good sense he comments: “Smaug should not be ‘the Dragon in the Hobbit movie’ as if it was just ‘another’ creature in a Bestiary. Smaug should be ‘The DRAGON’ for all movies past and present.” He also rates the dragon in Dragonslayer. If he were any more rightheaded he’d explode.

1 Obviously the evil Martians who shoot down our probes were too busy carving gigantic faces on the ground. Ahem.

Tom McRae / Hotel Cafe

On Thursday we drove up to Edinburgh to see the Hotel Cafe tour headlined by Tom McRae. We went to the Hotel Cafe tour in Newcastle in 2006 and we saw him solo in Edinburgh last year so this fused the two experiences. The Hotel Cafe concept is a fantastic idea which manages to highlight artists you may (or may not) like while never staying still for long enough that you get bored with any one singer.

Cut for length

Ever decreasing circles

This is very nice indeed. Actual movie footage of the Earth ‘setting’ behind the moon taken from Japan’s new Selene probe which has been imaging the moon in High Definition. Amazingly smooth video (the Realplayer version worked for me). There are more images and videos at the main site, although the videos are extremely poorly indexed.

Or if you prefer your views of the Earth from a greater distance, how about a photo of the Earth and moon taken from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars.

(Or if that’s still too close I previously posted a photo of the Earth and Moon from the Cassini probe in orbit around Saturn.)

Lastly, there are some unusually dynamic images of avalanches in progress on Mars:

Science: practical and theoretical.

Last night we laid on a rug outside and watched meteors. The rate was relatively low–at most one every five minutes with some longer lulls–but it was still great. Even the typically light-polluted city skies didn’t spoil the experience; indeed we probably saw as many stars last night as we’re ever likely to from this location, and the view was stunningly beautiful. The weather was absolutely clear for once. A really lovely prelude to my birthday.

Tonight we watched Richard Dawkins’s The Enemies of Reason on Channel 4. Despite agreeing with him in every way that counts I sometimes think that Dawkins is his own worst enemy, since he can come across as a strident, joyless naysayer. His recent polemic on religion fell a little foul of this. Here, although still preaching to the converted, he struck a good balance between singing the praises of reason (and, importantly, defining and demonstrating the beauty and relevance of science in everyday life) and analysing the failings of superstition and pseudoscience. Janet and I stopped the playback several times to debate the issues, but pleasingly there were very few things we raised that Dawkins didn’t himself address at some point in the episode. My only complaint is more of a wish: Derren Brown’s past contributions to debunking psychics and astrology have been so compelling that it would have been nice to see more of him than just a brief interview segment. My TV guide presented this documentary as something of an equal pairing between the two, and it intrigues me to think how much mileage could be gained from seeing Brown demonstrate before our eyes the ease with which apparently impossible phenomena can be faked. Even as it stands though I’m very interested to see part two next week.

The Sky at Night

Today I’ve watched a couple of programmes about the 50th Anniversary of The Sky at Night. It reminds you just how long the show’s been around (since before Sputnik) and how much of an institution Sir Patrick Moore is–and also how much of a twinkle he’s always had. He’s not one of those august celebrities who take themselves too seriously. We were even treated to a clip of him on an old episode of Wogan in which he jammed on the Xylophone with Hugh Laurie on the piano. Quite surreal. Patrick once played the piano for Albert Einstein, apparently, which is the kind of story you just can’t make up.

Despite the persistent promise of gloomy wet weather, we’ve actually had a lovely couple of days here. We had a very civilised Barbeque last night on the patio and despite the evening chill in the air it felt very summery. I think the rain’s now due tomorrow (and we certainly hope so or Janet’s Carnivorous Plants may be getting a bit thirsty soon.) And of course there’s no work tomorrow. Praise be for bank holidays.

Subtle as an iBrick

It’s a blizzard outside! Sadly none of it is settling on the ground. As far as I’m concerned this defeats the whole purpose of snow, which is to make the world look pretty and fresh and strange. Not just soggy.

While I’m here: Steve Jobs meets US Foreign Policy in this surprisingly amusing skit about Iraq. I say “surprisingly” because it’s about as subtle as a brick, but that’s part of the charm.

Lastly, I don’t know why this is cool but it is: an image of Jupiter taken from the Cassini probe in orbit around Saturn (1.1 billion miles away). Now that’s a zoom lens.

EDIT: Some actual snow on the ground this morning! Plenty of signs of it melting rapidly as it lands, but for the moment it’s actually quite white in places.

Can you see me waving?

Oh wow. This unprepossessing image is a colour picture, harkening1 back to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, of Earth and the moon from the orbit of Saturn. It was taken by the Cassini probe at a distance of 930 million miles from Earth, as you can see in this wider view.

There’s something profound to be said about all known life in the Universe (yes, even George W Bush) sharing such a tiny set of pixels, but really I just think it’s very cool: empowering and humbling all at the same time.

1 Harkening, or harking? I can’t decide now, and the internet is proving unhelpful, suggesting only that “harking” is better than “harping”, which I would never have dreamed was correct in any case.

Space Cadets

My brother-in-law force-fed us some Space Cadets last weekend, a show I’d been assiduously avoiding on principle as I was offended by the very idea of conning people into thinking they were off to space.

The show is both worse and better than I’d imagined. Worse because I hate watching people being conned, and I’m so uncomfortable watching I can hardly sit still at times. It’s lowest common denominator TV.

Better because the people being conned are mostly a complete waste of space and after a relatively short time you’re forced to conclude that they deserve anything that happens to them. I mean, would you seriously believe our local cluster of galaxies is called the Hazelnut Cluster, or that your Russian space shuttle has artifical gravity generators? There’s also a certain shameful thrill in seeing whether the programme can actually pull off the ludicrous hoax.

To counter my deep moral reservations about the whole thing, the makers of the programme have cannily got the family and friends of the contestants to approve the practical joke before starting, and there’s real astronaut training and a trip on a vomit comet for the contestants when they’re done. Also Johnny Vaughan, of all people, treads the fine line between taking the mick and taking it seriously. He knows when to tip his hat to the idea of space travel, or the bravery of the contestants.

Still, overall it’s an uncomfortable and very ambivalent viewing experience.


New planet found in our solar system. Okay, new Pluto-esque large asteroid thing found. (And as for whether Pluto is a planet, your guess is as good as mine…) The new object is somewhere between 70% and 200% of Pluto’s size, and is 51 AU from the Sun, compared to Pluto’s 39 AU, and the Earth’s 1 AU. That’s a looong way. Let’s just say it would take a very long time to get a sun tan out there. The new planet also apparently has a strange inclination, but we won’t go into that.

In other astronomy news, a frozen water ice lake has been found on Mars. Nice. 🙂

Awe inspiring

This is very cool and very beautiful.

It’s a series of time lapse images from the Hubble Space Telescope showing a “light echo” expanding through an otherwise invisible dust cloud. It’s the kind of thing you only expect to see in the movies, but these are real images. The universe seems very static sometimes, moving on geological timescales, but this is very different.

There’s a much bigger image or even better, a time lapse movie (2.14 MB Quicktime) plus others.

I first saw this a while ago, and it stayed with me. Simply awe inspiring.


Woo! First pictures (and data) back from Titan.

Plenty of animated babble on News 24. I have to give them credit for the time they’re devoting to it, even if the presenters don’t entirely seem to know what to do with the story, or why it’s important. Lots of friendly sound-bytes about how Titan’s atmosphere may be a primordial soup “time capsule” resembling ancient Earth, but very little context about what Titan looks like, how big it is, where it is, how it compares to other objects in the solar system.

My main niggle so far is that we’re getting endless showings of CGI simulations of the mission, but not a single one of the genuinely beautiful pictures of Saturn and its moons which Cassini has sent back to date. Genuine pictures of other worlds. Yes, they’re covering the Titan landing and yes, the lander had some British involvement, but from watching the TV you’d think Cassini’s only purpose was as a glorified delivery van for a good old British probe.

Still, the enthusiasm of the scientists comes across well, and it’s nice to see some scientific “good news” on the television for a change.

EDIT: Oooh, purdy… Have you ever noticed how artist’s concepts of bits of the Solar System are always really spectacular, full of jagged pillars of rock and dramatic canyons… and then the actual pictures look like the beach at Scarborough? First the Moon, then Mars, now Titan. Of course, for me I can’t help looking at the pictures in context so I’m still thinking “wow, cool!” because it’s, y’know a vastly distant moon orbiting Saturn with its own atmosphere and a distinct shortage of day-trippers and ice-cream vans.


Horizon looks like it might be interesting tonight (9 p.m., BBC2) for space nerds like me. From Digiguide:

Saturn: Lord of the Rings.
Documentary about the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft’s mission to Saturn, which has given us stunning images of the solar system’s most bewitching planet. The hope now is that by exploring Saturn’s mysterious moon, Titan, we will find answers to how life first began. It is a mysterious primordial world of green sky, orange clouds and raindrops made of methane but may hold vital clues to the origin of life.

Mainly Martian

There’s an interesting blog, “Mainly Martian”, by a non-fiction Mars author, that I dip into occasionally. He has some interesting thoughts about the recent SpaceShipOne trip to the edge of space and back.

He’s a pro-science writer, but here he’s talking about whether the achievement really makes much difference given the huge difference between visiting the edge of space and sustaining orbit – sort of like the gap between dipping your toe into a rock pool and swimming the atlantic. Instinctively I feel that it *is* a big step, but it’s hard to deny that it really represents a minor stunt rather than a major step towards privately financed trips into space. Interesting.

He also raises another good point – the relative dearth of good news reporting about space exploration – barring disasters. Personally I don’t think it’s all that bad; BBC News 24 at least gives time to coverage of launches and major missions. Mind you, News 24 sometimes seems fairly desperate for something to fill the air-time…

I do think that current TV News coverage of most issues tends towards the attention-grabbing simplistic headline, and science topics are no exception to this kind of misleading ‘sales’ strategy. Often the hopelessly dumbed-down headline survives long after their own experts have tried to explain how complex things really are. But I don’t have the energy for a long rant about either TV News or science coverage, so I’ll save that for another, even rainier day. 🙂

I’ve noticed that my journal is becoming relentlessly factoidal. I feel like I ought to display some angst, or something. The trouble is, I seem to be sickeningly contented at the moment. My gripes tend to focus less on how crap my life is, and more on critical issues of our time, like Horatio Caine’s annoying habits, or being woken at 5 a.m. by a small three-legged cat paddling my nose with her claws.

Life, don’t talk to me about life…