Of Stars & Smartphones

Stars

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I have been interested in Astronomy and space in general for a long time, I remember the first Space Shuttle launch, watching Space 1999 and Blake’s 7, and Patrick Moore on The Sky at Night. I have only briefly owned a basic telescope but still like looking at the stars, especially now as where I live, on the edge of the countryside, has the advantage of darker skies at night away from streetlights. I find it very relaxing.

Recently I found that a moving light in the sky was the International Space Station – I felt I should have waved – and just the other night I looked out of the front window and saw the moon accompanied by two “stars” which turned out to be Jupiter and Saturn – the thought that these two bright points of light in the sky were two massive planets millions of miles away is still awe inspiring to me.

How do you find out what these points of light are though?

I still own two plastic discs which would be called old tech now called Planispheres which consist of a movable oval shaped window over a map of all the stars visible in the night sky from my latitude, you rotate the window round to match the date and time and it shows what stars can be seen then and where they are in the sky. Useful and non-dependant on batteries, it was still supplemented with technology.

In the nineties I received, attached to a computer magazine, a small program called Skyglobe. It was a pre-Windows program running in MS-DOS and gave a full, interactive view of the night sky on the computer, it could update in real time, showed the planets and the moon, the shapes of the constellations and you could even speed up time to see how the stars changed in the sky over the course of the year, all thanks to the wholly predictable nature of the motion of the Earth against the stars and planets. It was a fantastic piece of software, it had an elegant, uncluttered user interface that could be almost entirely hidden to just show the stars, operated via the keyboard, and it fitted on a single floppy disk. I still have a copy today that can be made to work, once you convince Windows to run it.

Even Skyglobe though has been superseded. On my tablet I now have a program (sorry, app) called Stellarium that looks fundamentally the same except that it has fancier graphics with a landscape rather than just a horizon line. This app can update in real time too, but to change the direction you’re viewing you can, of course, swipe and drag the image around rather than using arrow keys, it’s also just a little bit more portable than a PC with a CRT screen was before. One major change though is its ability to use the tablet (or phone’s) sensors to detect where you’re pointing it and show the same region of sky on the screen so you don’t even need to know which way’s north anymore.

Combined with telescopes that have been able to know where they are and point to any star you choose since the early 2000s amateur astronomy has embraced the digital – the old technology of mirrors and glass guided by new technology of GPS, smartphones and tablets and all driven by our fascination with knowing what’s out there.

The Technocats

Ginger Cat

Image by Daga_Roszkowska from Pixabay

For a long time cats have chosen a suitable Human to live with and we’ve either had to let them in or out of our houses on demand, left a window open or otherwise made a small hole in our back doors and fitted cat flaps.

These were fine of course until our cat was followed by other cats into the house, or other cats, being naturally curious and hungry decided to see if there was anything to eat behind this strange little door.  As such the lockable door was invented but still required Human intervention – usually at night.  The option to have the door set to out-only or in-only was unusual as I’m sure the cat would wonder why it had been suddenly trapped indoors, or locked out.

Next came the wonderfully humourous magnetic cat flap.  Our cat had this and we were only one family in many who witnessed their moggy returning home with some random metallic object dangling from its collar and a bemused look on its face.  Short of amassing a small collection of random screws they never brought back anything valuable though.  The other side effect that took some getting used to was when the cat walked too close to a radiator and dragged the magnet clattering along it’s length, usually at two in the morning, downstairs.

Recently though the rise of microchipping of cats for identifying lost pets by vets has created the smart cat flap, the feline equivalent of a hotel key-card, only allowing authorised cats through.  The problem, from the cat’s point of view used to be the magnet not releasing the door quickly enough when in a hurry, resulting in a frantic clattering of the door until the cat’s releasing of the flap coincided with the releasing of the latch.  I imagine the same situation with the chip flaps would be like having to repeatedly swipe a chip and pin card at the supermarket, forward and back in front of the door.

So technology moves on, making things better, but it’s still not as funny as a cat strolling into the room with a spoon attached to its collar and an expression on it’s face along the lines of “what?”

The Needs for Bees

bee eating

bee eating (Photo credit: acidpix)

It is said that if you ask the question “where does our food come from?” today you’ll get the answer “the supermarket” more often than not and it’s true that many people are increasingly further along the supply chain from the raw produce than ever before – I am guilty of this myself, for convenience’s sake I eat much frozen and processed foods and it would be easy to not realise which animal beef comes from or that potatoes are grown in the ground or peas are pulled from one natural packet before being shoved into an artificial one.

The thing is that so much of our food still relies on nature to help in its production, despite irrigation systems, spray-on pesticides and nutrients.  Sometimes an apparently insignificant change in nature can have catastrophic implications that science can’t (yet) get round effectively – the most extreme example of this effect on our food being the novel The Death of Grass by John Christopher in which a devastating plant virus wipes out all species of grasses – including wheat leaving us without cereal crops for either us or our livestock to eat with the result of a rapid breakdown of society to a barbarous state of desperation for survival.

But it’s just science fiction isn’t it, we’re ok.  Aren’t we?  Well, to a point.  Bees are one of the main pollinators of plants, we need them in order to grow our food crops as well as gardens full of pretty flowers but they have been, across the world, in decline in recent years and scientists don’t fully know why.  It is thought that if we lost the bees the knock on effect would be the loss of up to a third of our regular diet. 

Various theories have been put forward such as mites like the tracheal mites that killed off all native British bees during World War I – which needed to be replaced by imported Dutch and Italian bees.   It is also theorised that, ironically, pesticides and other chemicals used to protect the crops the bees are pollinating are responsible.

So what can be done?  Well another possible contributing factor is that people are either removing wild flower areas that supported the bees or concreting over gardens and having low-maintenance patios and so on that have no flowers at all or only plants that are no use to bees whatsoever.  So while science tries to find out why the decline is happening and the debate over pesticides rumbles on consider how that humble bee sitting on your windowsill ultimately affects your life, it’s not as insignificant as it may seem.  There are lots of posts on Facebook at the moment advising helping out struggling bees with drops of sugar-water and more importantly the planting of bee-friendly plants.

At the front of our factory is an area that hadn’t been cleared of wild plants and flowers for some time and as I was making a mug of tea the other day I noticed it was a hive of bee activity, so to speak, so we’re doing our bit, in a tiny way.

Small World, Big Planet

Antarctica - Gerlache strait

Antarctica – Gerlache strait (Photo credit: Rita Willaert)

This site’s tagline refers to the old saying that keeps getting reused that ships, then aircraft and now the internet are “shrinking the world” but although Humans have visited every continent there’s still vast areas of emptiness, much unexplored, and as for the oceans, well we’ve barely dipped a toe in the water and shivered at how cold it is so far.

To show this Gizmodo recently showcased some of the most remote research stations on the planet and even a couple of homes for those who really want to get away from it all.

Satellites, Cows and Penguin Poop

English: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus...

English: King Penguin (Aptenodytes patagonicus patagonicus), West Falkland. Français : Un Manchot royal. Photo prise sur l’île de Falkland occidentale (ou Grande Malouine), dans les Malouines. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Many people worry about all the satellites up there pointing cameras down here but for scientists as well as governments they can be invaluable – particularly if you need to p p p pick up a penguin, or 9,000.

In recent years wildlife researchers have used satellite and aerial imagery to watch animal movements and behaviour.  Dr Sabine Begall, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany who had been studying magnetic sensing in animals, initially mole rats, decided to see if larger animals might have the same.  Dr Begall and colleagues used Google Earth to examine how cows stand in fields across the world (to rule out weather effects) and found that the majority faced north or south only, the effect was also seen in deer in the Czech Republic.

In 2009 a group monitoring how penguins were coping with changing environmental conditions wanted to confirm the location of breeding grounds.  Using satellite images, which didn’t have sufficient resolution to see individual birds, they were able to identify colonies due to the staining of the ground by guano – the penguins stay at the colony for around eight months.  The work confirmed the location of 26 colonies and found 10 more.

Then in December last year a team of Belgian and Swiss explorers visited one of these colonies, finding around 9,000 birds.  The article at The Atlantic has the photos.

Ditching the Pills?

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon.

This image shows a whole and a cut lemon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we face more snow, it always seems to snow on my birthday these days, which is nice, and America is getting more than its fair share too, the folks at Gizmodo UK asked for the commenters’ DIY cold remedies.

The kind of cold and flu pills and powders you find in pharmacies seem to all be variations on the same drugs – pain killers, antiinflamatories, decongestants, lemon or blackcurrant flavourings – and many people are trying traditional methods instead, though many still use some medicines too.

Some, myself included, mix the powdered hot lemon drinks with honey – for its antibacterial properties; some make a honey and lemon drink using fresh fruit juice and take a paracetamol with it; others swear by whiskey.  Hot baths and wrapping up well are always popular, as is staying in bed although for many of us that’s not a viable option.

Finally a good hot curry was offered along with other drinks recipes.  I can agree with the curry option for one because you can at least taste it even if it doesn’t clear you out.

[Gizmodo UK]

Everyday Dangers

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of F...

Dangerous Risk Adrenaline Suicide by Fear of Falling (Photo credit: epSos.de)

Jared Diamond of The New York Times provides an interesting lesson about how people in the modern world perceive dangers.  After witnessing friends in New Guinea refusing to sleep under an old, dead tree due to the risk of it falling he realised that people have begun to worry more about the bigger, more unlikely risks such as terrorist attacks, nuclear radiation, plane crashes and so on and be less vigilant towards smaller risks that are taken or encountered very often – risks that are ignored because people think “that’s not a problem, I’m careful” while often not being.

I personally have this “hypervigilant attitude towards repeated risks” or “constructive paranoia” – I watch what I’m doing when I’m descending the long flight of stairs outside, I wear well treaded shoes on snow and ice and I’m particularly careful when handling sheet glass; which can literally be lethal, or at least painful as the scars on my hands from unavoidable accidents attest.

As the article states, with access to emergency services and the assumption that help is only moments away the awareness of real dangers has become diminished and unlikely ones exaggerated.

Have a read of the full article, then be careful out there.

[NYT]

Planted Tech

My Garden

My Garden (by Andy Vickers)

I often miss the garden I had where I previously lived, before I moved to the town centre surrounded by concrete, roads, car parks, oh and a river and fields at the back.  Anyway, my garden was a wedge of land with a patio at one end and rows of flowers and plants.  I’d go and buy new plants at the weekends, once I planted a substantial shrub and was livid to find that slugs had defoliated it entirely overnight.

If I still had my garden I could perhaps combine it with my geek side and buy a gadget from Parrot to be released later in the year.  Known for their AR Drones this isn’t a slug-busting mini helicopter with slime-seeking missiles – brings a whole other meaning to the SALT treaty.  The Flower Power device measures sunlight, humidity, temperature and nutrient levels and can be customised to most types of plant so you can individually, and remotely keep track of the conditions your flowers are living with from the comfort of your sofa.

Now, engineers of Parrot, bring me my anti-slug drone.

Calculated Risks

Flooded Field

Flooded Field (©2012 by Andy Vickers)

I have watched the river behind where I live rise, flood and then recede over the last few weeks, the floods were at once potentially devastating yet fascinating.  In the past these floodplains were left for the rivers to occupy when needed but now as town expand and risk areas usually only used for industry are redeveloped for housing more people are choosing to live with the risk.

The general opinion is that floods are an occasional occurence, in this country we don’t often have our brick-built buildings swept away by floodwaters and the locations, often with beautiful views are worth paying the price for.  So research has found that even after major floods house prices in affected areas haven’t dramatically dropped, though it does discourage some people from moving into a town from elsewhere.

Some homeowners even come up with methods of flood-proofing their homes rather than give them up to the forces of nature.  One problem that comes with the risk though is that insurance companies are more likely in future to refuse to insure flood risk houses, potentially making them difficult to sell.

In addition it is also thought that much of the flooding is caused by the developments themselves, with too much ground covered with concrete and tarmac and nowhere for rainwater to drain away, and what can be taken away draining into antiquated sewers.  Flooding is likely to be a regular reality for many more people in the future and the best defence is preparation to protect your valuables.

[BBC]

Whalers, Cartographers and Disappearing Islands

discovery channel ship

discovery channel ship (Photo credit: the queen of subtle)

This week has seen much confusion for oceanographers in the Pacific.  Scientists from the University of Sydney tried to visit Sandy Island between Australia and New Caledonia, identified on everything from marine charts to Google Earth it was nowhere to be found and the ocean beneath its supposed location was 4,500 feet deep.

That’s a lot of island to lose – an exceptional case of coastal erosion perhaps?  Or maybe one of the errors that map makers have deliberately added to maps to show who’s copied their work?

Probably the best solution has been proposed by Shaun Higgins from Auckland Museum who has found records from the whaling ship Velocity which recorded the island around 1876.  It is possible that the crew were mistaken about what they saw or where they were.  Since then it has been applied to all other maps of the area.  Google has removed the island from its database stating to AFP that they welcome feedback and “continuously explore(s) ways to integrate new information from our users and authoritative partners into Google Maps”

Whatever the cause it’s an error that has lasted until today, demonstrating the vastness of our Earth’s oceans and how much there’s still to find, or not as the case may be.

[Gizmodo UK, Discovery News]