Many of you may already know, I’m an astronomy nut. I love space and everything to do with it.* I’ve watched Carl Sagan’s brilliant TV Series Cosmos dozens of times (and happy to watch some again with anyone interested). I’m half way through the first series of the Discovery Channel’s The Universe series. I’ve got The Teaching Company’s  Introduction to Astronomy DVD Course. And I just signed up last week to Swinburne Astronomy Online’s Short Course.

And yesterday, I bought my very own telescope.

My Meade LS-6 ACF telescope

They don’t make telescopes like they used to, eh? It’s a fully automatic whizz-bang thing, I basically press buttons and it zips around (slowly) and shows me what I asked for. It has slightly cheesy audio descriptions, which are actually kinda cool because they tell you what too look for, as well as how big and how far away the object is.

After a rocky start last night, where the dumb thing couldn’t even get a GPS lock, I took it out to the local football oval down the street and tried it again tonight. Despite nothing changing since yesterday, it now worked a treat and it was set up and auto-aligned within 10 minutes. Excellent!

Unfortunately, Melbourne’s far too bright a city. The light pollution is pretty bad and you could be excused for thinking the universe is mostly grey. There were plenty of stars about, though. But no planets! I was out at about midnight, but all the planets, asteroids and moons in our solar system were hiding below the horizon! Very inconvenient! But as I said, there were plenty of stars around so I still got to see some Globular Clusters (awesome name for a rock band but no, GCs are groups of stars all bunched up in each other’s gravity).

First object I looked at was M45, Pleiades. Roughly 440 light years from Earth, it’s an open globular cluster that’s also known as the Seven Sisters (for 7 of the brightest stars are very clearly visible with the naked eye). What I saw wasn’t quite like this image (no blue and I couldn’t see the dust clouds, just black space with very bright white dots) but I saw about 20 or 30 stars, as well as the very obvious 9 very bright stars. So that was pretty cool.

M45, Pleiades star cluster

Next I had a look at NGC 3532. I didn’t know it at the time but this was the very first thing the Hubble Space Telescope looked at when it was first launched, which seems fitting for my first night out with a scope! It didn’t work out too well for the Hubble telescope, which had a flawed mirror at the time, but for me I had no trouble looking at it and could see a good 20 or 30 stars. Was quite cool!

NGC 3532

And last of what I can remember, I had a look at Hyades.


There were a bunch of other things, mainly globular clusters as there was too much light pollution to really see anything else. Definitely looking forward to getting out of Melbourne and into the middle of nowhere, to really get some dark sky viewing!

Please be aware, none of the photos here are my own. They are all sourced from the web, but most I have altered brightness or colours to try and better reflect what I saw. They’re pretty good as a rough guide to what I saw.

* Well, not EVERYTHING. I mean there’s way too much maths involved, for a start. And don’t get me started on dark energy…

Upcoming Movies

Ahh, ‘serendipity’. A word which is almost ALWAYS followed by it’s definition: finding good things when not looking for them.

Which is what happened when, on the weekend, I was forced to clean my house. Well, most of my house. In doing so, I discovered – or should that be, rediscovered – my Christmas present from last year! Movie vouchers! Trouble is, they expire…. on 31 December 2010! So I have about 3 weeks to go and see four movies. Or three weeks to see one movie, with three friends. Or two movies with two friends. The possibilities are, well, not endless.

So…. who wants to see a movie? Having a look at what’s out now gives:

Tron: Legacy (3D)

Computers, motorbike racing and tight, figure-hugging neon-blue suits…. what more could a geek like me want?

Listen to or download Marc Fennell’s review of Tron:Legacy here.

Red Hill

An Australian Western sounds corny, but from everything I’ve seen this could be one of the best Aussie films yet.

Megamind (3D or 2D)

Animated superhero comedy film, supposed to be really good.

Listen to or download Marc Fennell’s review of Megamind here.

Fair Game

Drama based on the true story of undercover CIA Agent Valerie Plame, who was outed by White House officials to discredit her husband during the Bush Administration.


A Bruce Willis/Morgan Freeman action-comedy, sounds like an alright popcorn-movie.

So who wants to see a movie before December 31? Let me know which one you want to see, and when, and we’ll sort something out!

Tighter Airport Security Is Worth Sacrificing A Little Privacy

I’ve written before about how precious we are, as a society, when it comes to nudity. Our clothes are a mask, behind which we hide our self-consciousness and our insecurities. So when the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) started using body-scanner machines that can ‘see through’ clothing, there was a not unexpected outcry. And again when, at the end of November, the TSA introduced more in-depth frisking for anyone who refuses the body-scanners – including physically ‘patting’ the genital area.

CNN News reports on an confrontation with a passenger, which includes a description of the procedure: Watch Here

“Privacy advocates” (and as Jeff Jarvis often points out, we never really know who these paranoid activists are) were up in arms about this gross invasion. Sure, it’s invasive – and so it should be. This isn’t some “Let me see you nude, or let me feel you up” perverted TSA ruling. This is a reasonable and understandable attempt to make flying safer. If you want to blame someone for this, don’t blame the TSA – blame Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. He’s the guy that, no doubt in severe emotional distress at having such an unpronounceable name, tried but failed to blow up us underpants on a plane. Thanks to him, and the drug-mules that don’t want want suspicious bulges showing up on the scanners, we NEED X-ray machines and hands-on tackle-checks.

Let me be perfectly clear: if a security officer at an airport asks you to step through one of these body-scanners, it is NOT a sexual thing. For one thing, you’re not that hot. Secondly, security officials are too busy to be having a quick flog over your black-and-white scans. Thirdly, you’re really not identifiable on the scans. It’s not about you.

It’s about time we stopped worrying about whether someone in a professional capacity gets to see our nudie bits, or having a feel for home-made bombs.

Is Older Always Better?

You may remember Jen McCreight. When an Iranian clerk blamed women wearing revealing clothes for causing earthquakes, she accidentally started a global event called Boobquake, which scientifically proved him wrong.

This year her father, Mike, also got into the newfangled blogging game, and started If I Were King, a little place for him to write about whatever is pissing him off at the time. He’s a smart guy. He makes a lot of good points, and his blog is always an interesting read.

But today he wrote something I found myself disagreeing strongly with. Writing about the US Supreme Court, he argues that life time appointments for justices are no longer a good thing. Justices no longer vote by their conscience – politics be damned – but instead vote according to ideology. “Now justices vote along straight political lines. The new strategy for appointments is to send justices to the Supreme Court at an early age and make damn sure their political ideology is aligned to the party in power.” This, of course, is the part of his post I agree with. Since justices have life terms, political parties make all kinds of manoeuvrings to get someone who’ll vote their way on the bench. And having the same people in their jobs for such a long time reduces the likelihood of change or reform. Decisions that may have been applicable thirty years ago may now, in a different culture, be appropriately overturned. But that won’t necessarily happen if the same people are on the bench, and their opinions haven’t kept up with the changing attitudes of society. Just as the executive branch of government has fixed term lengths, I think the judiciary should too. I like Mike’s suggestion of 15 years.

What I disagree with, though, is Mike’s idea of a minimum age. He proposes that to be nominated, a justice must be at least 55 years old. As I said, an aging Supreme Court is not necessarily a good thing. I certainly respect the advantages of age and experience, but I don’t think it’s impossible to find similar experience and wisdom in a 45 year old, for example. So I agree and disagree with Mike: fixed 15 year terms would be great, but I don’t think a minimum age of 55 is the way to go.

What do you think? Are life terms a good idea? Should there be a minimum age?

Handbags Don’t Cure Cancer

If I wore a bra, it would probably be black. Or grey. Maybe white, red or blue, depending on what else I was wearing. It would be as comfortable as I could get it, but I wouldn’t expect it to cure cancer.

If I had a handbag, I’d like it on the kitchen table. Or the backseat of the car. Maybe even in the bathtub, or on the toilet. But I wouldn’t expect that telling people where I put it would cure cancer.

But that’s the latest Facebook meme going around at the moment. Last year it was “tell us what colour bra you’re wearing… it’ll be cheeky, give the boys a thrill and raise awareness about breast cancer”. This year it’s “tell us where you put your handbag… it’ll be cheeky, give the boys a thrill and remind you about breast cancer”.

I’m well aware that breast cancer is a terrible thing. I do not need to me reminded of it. I have a family history of it. Reminding me about it serves no purpose. I can see, however, that it can be good to remind women to get their regular breast scans – but are “cheeky” Facebook campaigns going to be all that effective? I would be very surprised if many women posted “I like it on the coffee table” thought even for a second “Hey, I really should book in for that exam”. Those that did, I imagine, were already planning it anyway – perhaps because of a recent scare or a history they’re very aware of.

And why do we only see these ‘cheeky’ status updates for breast cancer? Lung cancer is the most common cancer – affecting both men and women – and is by far the most lethal. This year, the US National Cancer Institute expects more men to be diagnosed with prostate cancer than women diagnosed with breast cancer. Prostate cancer has a similar survival rate to breast cancer, but nobody’s suggesting Facebook status updates to ‘remind’ men or make them aware to do a PSA test. Let’s face it, breasts get all the attention because they’re sexy.

Well I’m going to change that. I need a catchy, slightly naughty theme to change my status update to. Since prostate cancer only affects men – just as breast cancer mainly (but not only) affects women – I’m going to make it something uniquely masculine.

Next week, I’m going to change my status to “I did it XX times today”.

Where ‘XX’ is going to be the number of times I scratched my crotch.

And I’m going to encourage all my male friends to do so, as well. You know, to remind them to get their prostates checked. And because it’s a little bit sexy, a little bit cheeky, I’m sure it’ll catch on. It’ll go viral. Men will finally take ownership of their prostates. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even make the prostate sexy, like boobs.

An Alarming Tale

Guest post by Hamish Lucas.

Daylight savings is here again! What a wonderful time of year it is. Crisp cool evenings, warm afternoons and extra long days are conducive to getting more work at home done and more play time with our baby boy. It truly is one of my favourite time of year, which is why, when the clock ran forward an hour last Saturday, I was in an excellent frame of mind. That is until Monday morning.

By Sunday evening i was still yet to put all our clocks forward to match the new EDT (GMT-9). My trusty iPhone with which I am addicted however did not let me down, and automatically updated the time on Saturday night.
With this in mind, and faith in my heart, I went to sleep knowing I would be woken by my reliable, trusty iPhone.

Monday morning 5:30am, all my clocks are reading 4:30 and the iPhone starts its alarm, claiming it’s 6:30!

OK so I cope with that (mostly because I didn’t notice at the time) and get to work early albeit groggy.
Some discussion has ensued as to why this may be. It’s a recurring alarm, set before the Daylight savings period. Clearly there’s a bug, because the alarm is stored in gmt, which didn’t change of course.
Happy with this diagnosis, I deleted all my alarms and reset them.

Tuesday morning: 5:30am – you guessed it, the alarm went off!
In frustration, I set a single alarm for 8:30 so I could sleep in a bit. This logical course of action had the iPhone’s alarm going off at 8:30! So now very late to work, the diagnosis of this bug was really starting to annoy me.

At this point I realise that my diagnosis was – ahem – wrong. If I was right, the alarm would be going off late not early. So it seems that Apple and Steve Jobs have overcompensated. Let’s leave the innuendo alone, I’m not quite furious enough yet to start overt personal attacks.

Now comes some testing between myself and my tech savvy iPhone confederates. As it turns out, this bug, that may or may not have been triggered by the onset of daylight savings, only affects my most favourite of features: The repeating alarm. The alarm that I rely on. The alarm I never have to set. The alarm that knows not to wake me on weekends. This now buggy alarm has done what I thought nobody could do: Turned me from an impoverished iFanBoy to actually noticing all the other little bugs in the iPhone.
Whilst I still think it’s a great piece of hardware, Apple’re going to have to fix this fast, and apologise greatly in order to restore my faith in their programming.

By Wednesday morning, tired, disenchanted and miserable, I made it in to work on time.

Thanks Apple. You’ve ruined my happy Spring.

Bad Astronomy is Actually Good Astronomy

Space. It’s fascinating. I’ve geeked out on space stuff since I was a kid. I had books and videos about the solar system, I built Lego space stations and spaceships, and of course I watched sci-fi movies and tv shows. In 1989, when the Voyager 2 space probe passed Neptune, I poured over newspaper clippings and magazine articles with full-colour glossy photos of the murky blue gaseous planet.

So when I heard that Hubble 3D was showing at the iMax theatre, I had to go. It’s only 45 minutes long but it’s filled with some amazing footage. Incredible scenes of space taken by Hubble and then turned into beautiful 3D models of galaxies, supernovae and stellar nurseries. Footage of astronauts doing slow-motion spacewalks to service the telescope as well as life on board the shuttles, and the training conducted four-stories underwater to prepare for them. If you’re even a little bit interested in space, I recommend seeing this.

Thanks to the internet, there’s now a myriad of new ways to geek out on space. Blogs, magazines, podcasts and twitter feeds are just the start. Perhaps one of the best things a space geek can do is subscribe to Phil Plait’s blog, Bad Astronomy. A scientist who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope program, has written two books about space and now has his own TV series “Bad Universe”, I think of him as the Carl Sagan of our generation. He’s famously written articles debunking popular myths like astrology and the ‘moon landing hoax’. And nearly every day, he posts interesting pictures or articles about space. But most importantly, he explains what it is you’re seeing, and why it’s so remarkable.

Here are just a few recent examples. Click each of the photos below to get Phil’s explanations. They’re very cool!


Donate Your Organs

My brother used to have a “Don’t take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here” bumper sticker on his car. I respected his decision, but I didn’t agree with it. Something about the idea squicked me.

This was before I’d cemented my atheist beliefs and come to terms with the likelihood that there is no afterlife. I was young. I had naive questions, like “we don’t know what happens when we die, what if we do need our livers?”. I think a part of me was secretly hoping the vikings were right, and after my passing I’d have an eternity of drinking and feasting to look forward to.

That all changed, however, in my early twenties. My best friend went into hospital, needing open heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve. The plan was to use an artificial, mechanical valve that would do the job, but for a variety of reasons would be sub-standard. It would need to be replaced every 10 to 20 years, for a start, and could require him to take anticoagulant medication and have monthly blood tests. But, if that was the cost of saving his life, so be it. He was prepared for it, as best as anyone could be.

At the last minute, though, he got some great news: a donor heart valve had become available! The human valve was transplanted into him, and ever since he’s been a picture of health. Because of some dead stranger’s gift, he can live like everyone else. Organ donation changed his life.

The next day I went and signed up to be an organ donor. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, but if there is I’m fairly certain we don’t need our corporeal bodies in it. What I DO know, though, is that there’s a urgent need for organ transplants. Mark Colvin, host of ABC radio’s PM news and current affairs program, wrote about it brilliantly on The Drum today. You can’t help be moved by reading it, and I hope you will click here and sign up to be an organ donor.

Who’s Afraid of Islam? America Is.

Artist rendition of the “Ground Zero Mosque”Can’t we all move past the whole “They’re different to me, I’m scared” thing?

Last month the Pew Research Center released a report showing that most Americans don’t know what religion their own President is. The survey found that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) think Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Nearly half (43%) say they do not know what his religion is. He is, actually, a Christian – a fact that only a third of adults (34%) correctly answered, down from 48% in 2009.

Well, he says he’s a Christian, anyway. While in Australia we don’t have a problem with an atheist Prime Minister, in the US it’s almost political suicide. As Bill Maher said in an interview on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: “He of course has to SAY he is, because he’s running for President in the ‘United Stupid of America’”. Of course, a leader’s religion isn’t necessarily a big deal. Politicians should, ideally, be elected based on their policies, not beliefs. But there are times – fortunately not very often – when politicians will need to comment on religious topics. And a week after that survey was released, Obama did just that: he spoke out in support of what the media has dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque”.

Which isn’t at Ground Zero.

And isn’t really a mosque.

It’s a 13-story building with an auditorium, theater and performing arts center. It has a gym, swimming pool and basketball court; a creche, a bookstore, a culinary school, art studio, and food court. It also has a September 11 memorial, AND a mosque.

But because it’s planned to be built 200m away from the site of the World Trade Center, it’s become a hotbed of controversy. With many opposing its construction complaining it’s an insult to the memories of those who died there. Even though, as Matt Sledge writes for the Huffington Post, “Muslim prayers are already taking place right on the edge of the construction site … Families are going there to pray – for the souls of the dozens of innocent Muslim victims who died on September 11”.

It’s been nine years and Islamophobia is still widespread in America. It’s well time to move on. The 19 hijackers on September 11 were no more Muslim than the Westboro Baptist Church lunatic, Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps is Christian. They were a tiny, extremist element of an otherwise peaceful religion.