Archives For Research

I’ve just hit ‘publish’ on the latest episode of Recycled Electrons, my (almost) weekly podcast with friend and Zooniverse colleague Chris Lintott. We started podcasting to ‘The Listener’ in September 2011. This was episode 87 – ‘Very Nice Equipment’ – and since it’s now two years that Chris and I have been producing this weekly dose of news, I’m feeling reflective.

The two-year podversary prompted me to check out our iTunes reviews and they’re marvellous! This one is a particular highlight because it sums up what I think we’re aiming for:

I find the discussion on this podcast to be both accessible to a non-expert, but not oversimplified to the point of “oh god, another Discover magazine-level discussion.” Its like science for scientists, without assumption that The Listener is a deep expert in the topic, other than having some background in science in general. Well done on science accessibility guys. – sfnm77 on iTunes

People sometimes ask how we have the time to do the podcast, but the truth is that it’s pretty easy. One reason that the podcast is still going after two years is that it was designed from the outset to be the lowest-effort it could be.

We use Tumblr and Dropbox (both free) and keep the website simple and structured. We try to keep recording, processing and uploading to a total of about an hour each week. We are lucky enough to have a free-to-use studio across the street from our offices thanks to the University of Oxford Press Office, and we use Audacity and GarageBand for editing (also free). We keep a rolling, weekly Google Doc of things we might discuss. Every week we try to find a time to record and then we just go for it. Note that this was episode 87 but it’s been going over 100 weeks, so we don’t always manage it, and that’s fine.

Before we started Chris was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough to talk about each week but I listen to enough podcasts where people talk at each constantly (TWiT, Back to Work, The Talk Show, etc) to know that there’s always more to say. Once Chris was in the studio, he was his usual self and time flew by. We can talk forever anyway, and so I just see Recycled Electrons as a slightly more formal version of our usual wittering. It’s ended up being a bit like listening in on the coffee time chat of astronomers at work, and I like that.

Recycled Electrons

It only took a few weeks to start getting tweets and Tumblr messages from The Listener with feedback. Sometimes it was about the audio quality or download link, but soon it was about topics for discussion and questions they always wanted answered. The power of podcasting was suddenly obvious and it has been fun to learn how to handle the sort of back-and-forth the medium provides.

It’s an excellent way of figuring out what does and doesn’t work in science communication. With a podcast as niche as ours, you really start to get a feel for the topics that general astronomy doesn’t hit on or discuss. Podcasting empowers the podcaster to go super-niche if they wish and I think we have done. We are able to talk about peer-reviewed research and not just headlines. We can talk about grants and telescopes and politics and the working lifestyle of our field. This felt a bit odd at first but it gets great feedback and was clearly something people wanted to hear.

It became apparent early on that lots of people listen to us in bed! It turns out that this isn’t just us, but rather bedtime listening may be a common podcast phenomenon (citation needed). I have to be honest and say that learning this totally changed the way I thought about the podcast. It suddenly felt far more intimate and it meant that I realised not everyone listens half-distracted on a bus or train. It also meant that they likely didn’t get to the end, so we started trying to wake them up.

Very entertaining podcast where Chris and Rob cover the latest astronomy and general science news mixed with funny banter and anecdotes. Warning, don’t listen to this in bed as they will usually try to wake you up halfway through the podcast. – H.Kramer on iTunes

We don’t rehearse – I hope that’s obvious – and we don’t normally edit. I once edited out a very loud cough. The only other edits I can recall were forced upon me. On one occasion the fire alarm went off and I really did my best to keep recording but had to edit eventually and another time a phone began ringing in the recording studio, that we didn’t even know was there, and one of the Press Office staff had to come and answer it.

We’ve had bad episodes and we are pretty harsh critics of our own work. We’ve had some great episodes too. Weirdly I’m having trouble coming up with any particularly good or bad episodes. The titles are all just quotes from the show and I rarely recall anything that’s been said once I’ve posted it online. I rarely listen to episodes unless I think they were particularly high/low quality and I rely on The Listener to let me know if the audio quality is a problem – and it was in the early days. In fact getting things wrong and being low-budget is, I hope, quite endearing.

Affable co-hosts Chris and Rob talk about the latest developments in astronomy and space news, while frequently digressing, getting things wrong, arguing, forgetting people’s names, ranting vociferously, and occasionally giving a running commentary on what they can see out of the window. One day all podcasts will be this good. – Keithlard on iTunes

So here’s to the last two years, which have been fun and informative and at the very least have meant that that the spiders in the Oxford University Press Office have had some company, even if they never say much when we’re recording.

At the end of the month I’m going to an event at MIT all about science communication and I hope to hear from others who are doing something a bit different. The web is such a wonderfully diverse place for talking about anything and with science there is so much to say. More please!

A new journal begins today, Astronomy and Computing, covering the intersection of astronomy, computer science and information technology.

This journal is desperately needed in my view and I wish it every success. The timing is interesting as many people at the intersection of these research areas are skeptical of old-style journals and the current state of publishing in general. However, I look forward to reading it and maybe even submitting articles.

You’ll find it at

ProgressIt doesn’t matter what it is: today this was progress.

Image Credit: Jack Newton

Image Credit: Jack Newton

There’s a cool paper on arXiv today in which an intrepid band of astronomers (I assume they were/are intrepid) search for exoplanets around the stars in the Pleiades using Subaru. Spoiler alert: they don’t find any! However, it’s an interesting look at how to hunt for planets and small/faint objects in general.

They find 13 potential planet candidates around 9 stars. 5 of these were confirmed as background stars and two more are dismissed because they either didn’t appear in all data or the data that did appear in wasn’t good enough. Two more were found to be known brown dwarves, with masses 60x the size of Jupiter. The remaining 4 candidates still await further data to confirm their motion across the sky – but aren’t though to be planets either.

By not detecting any planets with a very sensitive instrument they are able to estimate an upper-limit for the frequency of such planets around stars in the Pleiades. So by not finding planets, they learn something really interesting. Well done, science.

During our Stargazing Oxford event on January 12th we had three sets of mini-lectures. These are short, concise talks about astrophysics that anyone should get something out of. There’s galaxies, planets, cosmology and more.

I’ll be blogging links to some of these in the next few days.

You can find the current set of talks on our site at or on iTunes U.

The Bones of the Milky Way

The Andromeda Project

December 11, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last week we launched a brand new Zooniverse site: The Andromeda Project. We’re asking people to spot star clusters in the Andromeda galaxy in data from the Hubble Space Telescope. You might think it sounds like menial work but it’s strangely addictive –  and incredibly useful for the researchers behind the data.

This project joins The Milky Way Project and Whale FM as a collection of Zooniverse sites that I have been a lead developer on. Amit Kapadia was the other lead for Andromeda and we’re pretty pleased with the result: check it out at

The Zooniverse strives to take so-called data deluge problems and turn them on their head, creating awesome websites where the public can do the grunt work – only it’s fun! Many Zooniverse projects take a task that would once have been done by a lowly grad student for months or years – and frees them up to do the more complex data reduction and analysis tasks. Spotting star clusters in Andromeda requires no special training – just a few examples and some enthusiasm. In this way we (the Zooniverse) try and crowdsource many problems, from classifying galaxies by their shape, to listening the bat calls. You can see all the current projects at

The Andromeda Project launched as part of the Zooniverse Advent Calendar, which began with our new publications page. This page shows the growing collection of peer-reviewed papers that result from Zooniverse volunteers clicking on our various sites. These papers are the whole point: all Zooniverse projects aim to produce real science results, offering the chance for anyone to be involved in science.

Andromeda is going well: with nearly 600,000 classifications performed already: a task that would have taken a researcher years! All this in less than a week. As I write this, the community of 8,000 users that has amassed around the project is currently classifiying images at a rate of 1 per second!

If you want to join in, take a look at

[Image Credit: Robert Gendler]

New direct image of a massive planet around another star (arXiv 1211.3744)

The Milky Way Project: A statistical study of massive star formation associated with infrared bubbles

Norway and the Aurora

February 28, 2012 — Leave a comment

I returned last night from a trip to Norway to see the aurora. I posted previously about my stint as a Trip Scholar for the excursion on a Hurtigruten vessel, organised by the Oxford Alumni Office. It was a fantastic trip. As well as the Northern Lights we got to see some incredibly beautiful parts of the world, still frozen in Arctic Winter and just getting ready to begin to melt toward Summer and eventually the Midnight Sun. (You can see my Flickr photos here)

We were travelling on the MS Trollfjord and were out at sea for much of the time. To see the stars and aurora you had to don all your warmest gear and head out onto the deck where the wind chill brought temperatures down to -20°C at times.

On our first night we had a chance viewing of the aurora for about ten minutes, which was great but a bit too brief. Many people didn’t catch them at all and the following day there was some disappointment from those who didn’t even realise they had missed the chance.

One the second day of our trip I had an alert that a coronal mass ejection has left the Sun earlier that day and was heading toward the Earth. It was due to hit the Earth’s magnetic field during our final evening on the boat and thus we had an increased chance of seeing the aurora as we sailed into Tromsø to following day. I reported this alert to the group and explained some of the physics of what was going on. The news totally excited everyone and it lead to a day or so of people asking every question imaginable about the Sun, the Earth and the aurora. It was great fun!

As we came into Tromsø the following night the sky was quiet and often cloudy. The ship’s aurora prediction had remained unchanged at a score of one (out of ten). I had explained that when it comes to predicting aurorae, nothing is very concrete. Even our solar flare from earlier in the trip was no guarantee. The disappointment was obvious, but the determination was enormous. A lot of people simply sat out on the freezing deck from sunset and waited. I waited with them.

At around 7:45pm we pulled into a port north of Tromsø (the ship stopped in many places all the time). The town’s lights made it difficult to see much but someone spotted a faint glimmer and we all lined up to inspect it. It intensified and grew green: the Northern Lights had arrived! Over the course of ten minutes or so it became brighter and structures became apparent. It formed an arc over our heads and soon the bottom of the aurora – the curtain – became clearly defined and vertical striations of green regularly punctuated its shape. Everyone was very excited. As the ship pulled away from the town, it turned and we moved alongside the lights for some time. They change rapidly yet often imperceptibly, and pulse in and out of existence at times.

A little while after heading out of the port it was much darker and the lights were better positioned relative to the lights on the ship. Some cloud was appearing, but the aurora were brighter and at times the deck burst into spontaneous applause. It was quite magical. About 45 minutes after they had appeared, the lights were hidden by cloud. Having been on deck for around two hours it was time to go inside, eat and most of all: defrost.

After toasting the lights, and the trip in general, we decided to chance on more trip outside. This time it didn’t take long for the cloud to move away and as we came into Tromsø we were treated to an even better, brighter display. Swirls and arcs and curtains of green light. At times I could even make out the red top above the greens, meaning that Nitrogen at even higher places in our atmosphere was being excited and glowing. We tried to take many photos but they really don’t do justice to what we could make out with our eyes.

I went onto flickr just now and looked for photos taken around Tromsø on either of the two nights we saw the lights. You can see one at the top of this post, taken by Flickr user nitin-p from Tromsø on the first night we saw the lights. The photo looks very similar to what we saw the first night from the deck. The second photo (below) is more like what we saw on the final night as we drew into Tromsø. Brighter, with more structure. This photo is from Flickr user momentaryawe and was also taken from Tromsø.

There were many people on board with very fancy-looking cameras, tripods and other photography kit. Some were even in our Alumni tour group. I gave my email address to many people who have promised to send their best pictures so I can make a gallery here to share around. It would be great to share some photos that were taken from the ship itself.

I was very happy with my Northern Lights trip, and I think the people in our group seemed to get a lot out of it. Not only did they see the lights, but the solar flare warning, and subsequent aurora, left many of them with a better understanding of how such things can be seen, modelled and understood to further our knowledge about the Sun and our relationship to it. Several people expressed the fact that they had no idea how big and powerful the Sun was before the trip and that seeing the lights after being told what makes them happen, enhanced their experience and made the lights better somehow. I was really pleased with that comment and I’m very happy to have done to trip. I would recommend the Northern Lights to anyone, and will be trying to see them again myself one day.