Thought I’d start a little series of posts sharing the things I like to watch and listen to. So, the next few Mondays will have my favourite audio podcasts, and Wednesdays shall be my favourite video podcasts (which I like to call Internet TV).
So, since this is the international year of astronomy, I thought honour of first mention should go to AstronomyCast. This is one of the great rare few podcasts for which you really need your thinking cap on. It is presented by Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela L Gay. What I like most about this podcast is summed up in the show’s slogan, “a weekly fact based journey through the cosmos, helping you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know“. Emphasis needs to be placed on that last part. It is one thing to laud and lecture on the achievements of any branch of science, but actually backing that up with how such conclusions were reached supplies a degree of tangibility. This is something sadly lacking on our mainstream television and radio, and is why science is so badly understood by the general public.
AstronomyCast usually produces an approximately 30 minute episode twice a week. One episode is dedicated to talking about a particular subject in either; astronomy, astrophysics or cosmology or space technology; the other episode is a question & answer session where the presenters answer questions sent in by listeners.
For good measure, at the time of writing, this was their latest episode:
[audio: http://media.libsyn.com/media/astronomycast/AstroCast-090122.mp3|titles=Question Show - January 27th 2009|artists=Fraser Cain and Dr Pamela Gay]
Yes, it sounds like science fiction, but it isn’t. BLAST is an acronym for Balloon-borne Large Aperature Sub-millimetre Telescope. The BLAST project, lead by principal investigators, Mark Devlin and Barth Netterfield, was a project to both train graduate astrophysics students and to probe into views of the very early universe.
How do we see back in time? Because light travels at a set speed, it does not instantly go from point A to point B. So, light from the most distant sources is also the oldest light. That is how we see back in time.
Seeing back into time
This film was by Paul Devlin (any relation to Mark? Mark Devlin’s brother, thanks gmarsden) who has made two previous films (“Slam Nation” and “Power Trip“). While still paying all due attention to the scientific content, the documentary covers much more. In fact, it has many ingredients of a great drama. Much attention is given to Mark Devlin’s family and the effect that his prolonged absences have on his wife and two young sons. Also, some scenes are given over the two project leaders, Devlin and Netterfield, where they talk about science and their religious views. Devlin being an atheist and Netterfield being a Christian. All the while the spectre of failure hangs over the project as they hope they can collect the best astronomical data possible and then retrieve it from some of the harshest environments on Earth!
However, the greatest moments of drama belong to the telescope itself, by virtue of old saying what goes up, must come down. Both of the BLAST flights lasted for six days, during which time it collected vast amounts of data, far too much to be transmitted to satellites. Therefore the data had to be recorded to hard drives instead, which meant that BLAST had to parachute back to Earth and be recovered. I shall not give away whether BLAST was successfully recovered or not from either flight though! All I will say, as above, was that success was by no means guaranteed, given that the first flight had to be recovered from the far frozen north of Canada, and the second flight from the frozen wilderness of Antarctica!
BLAST's hard drives which need to be recovered after a flight
In case you are not into astronomy and wondering why on Earth (pun intended) you would want to fly a telescope on a balloon, here’s why. Above our heads, we have about 20 miles of swirling gas, i.e. the atmosphere. All of of this blurs and distorts light coming from space and limits the effectiveness of ground based telescopes. (Addendum: Not only that, but our atmosphere absorbs almost all of the wavelength the BLAST scientists wanted to observe. thanks gmarsden). You’ve probably heard of the Hubble Space Telescope. This is a huge telescope orbitting our planet which is most definitely outside of our atmosphere. However, achieving such a feat is hugely expensive. Therefore, creating a more modest telescope, flown up by a balloon instead of the shuttle is cheaper and somewhat easier to do. As I aluded to above, the disadvantage seems to be the recovery procedure.
I only came across this film as part of a BBC4 astronomy night. It was on the BBC iPlayer (UK viewers only), which has now expired, so I know I’m a little late to be telling you how good this was. However, you will be able to buy a DVD from the BLAST website if you are interested by my write up. Also, you can simply donate to the project if you would like to support the BLAST Movie project (by means of funding or hosting screenings), which IMHO is a fantastic way to reach out to children and the general public about the valuable work being done in astrophysics and experimental cosmology. Support BLAST!
In the meantime, you can watch a trailer for BLAST The Movie.
Since 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy, here is something I thought I’d pull out of my personal archive. It is a dissertation I wrote for the third year of my MPhys, reviewing achievements in cosmology between 1916 and 1999. I invite everyone who reads this to add any achievements in cosmology since then in the comments! If I get enough interest in this post, I’ll consider writing an updated version.