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Archive for February, 2015

Later today, France play Wales in the third round of matches of the 2015 6 Nations. The kick-off is at 5pm GMT (6pm local time). It is a must-win game really for both countries, with Wales having lost their opening match at home to England but then beaten Scotland away in the 2nd round, and France winning at home to Scotland in the opening weekend but losing away to Ireland in the 2nd round.

Wales have had the better of this encounter for the last several years, winning in Paris in 2013 and beating France at home in 2012 and 2014. But, if France play like they did in the last 20 minutes against Ireland, where they were the better team, we will have our work cut out.



But, with all respect to the two other matches, the match of the weekend is the one on Sunday, between Ireland and England in Dublin. With both teams unbeaten, and Ireland looking to retain their 6 Nations title, it could well be the championship decider, even though it is only the 3rd round of matches.

I will be in Buenos Aires by the time this post goes up, or at least on my way to Buenos Aires, I don’t think I will have quite landed. Argentina is, of course, a keen rugby nation so I am hoping I can get to see both the France v Wales and the Ireland v England matches somewhere in that city before my boat departs on the Sunday evening.

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At number 98 in BBC Radio 2’s 100 best guitar riffs is “Loser” by Beck. This song was released in March 1993, and then re-released in February 1994. I think I first heard it several years later, in about 1998 or 1999, and decided to have a listen to Beck’s back catalogue of work. I have to admit that, apart from this song, I have never been able to get into his early stuff. The only album of his that I like (so far) is “Sea Change”, which is a superlative album and well worth listening to. But, I’ve never been able to get into his other albums, but maybe I need to give them more time.



Beck's "Loser" is at number 98 in BBC Radio 2's list of the 100 best guitar riffs.

Beck’s “Loser” is at number 98 in BBC Radio 2’s list of the 100 best guitar riffs.



Beck was, back in the 1990s, referred to as the “new Bob Dylan”. As far as I knew he had been pretty quiet these last several years, but was back in the news just last week at the Grammys as his album “Morning Phase” won the album of the year award. His getting this award was also notorious for that idiot Kanye West storming the stage and saying that Beyoncé should have got the award!


In the time of chimpanzees
I was a monkey
Butane in my veins
So I’m out to cut the junkie
With the plastic eyeballs,
Spray-paint the vegetables
Dog food stalls with the beefcake pantyhose
Kill the headlights
And put it in neutral
Stock car flaming’ with a loser
And the cruise control
Baby’s in Reno with the vitamin D
Got a couple of couches,
Sleep on the love seat
Someone keeps saying’
I’m insane to complain
About a shotgun wedding
And a stain on my shirt
Don’t believe everything that you breathe
You get a parking violation
And a maggot on your sleeve
So shave your face
With some mace in the dark
Saving’ all your food stamps
And burning’ down the trailer park

(Yo. Cut it.)
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

(Double-barrel buckshot)

Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?

Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare
Banned all the music with a phony gas chamber
‘Cuz one’s got a weasel
And the other’s got a flag
One’s on the pole, shove the other in a bag
With the rerun shows
And the cocaine nose-job
The daytime crap of the folksinger slop
He hung himself with a guitar string
Slap the turkey-neck
And it’s hanging’ from a pigeon wing
You can’t write if you can’t relate
Trade the cash for the beef
For the body for the hate
And my time is a piece of wax
Falling’ on a termite
Who’s choking’ on the splinters
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
(Get crazy with the cheeze whiz)
Soy un perdedor*
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
(Drive-by body-pierce)
(Yo, bring it on down)
Soooooooyy….
[Chorus backwards]
(I’m a driver; I’m the winner;
Things are gonna change
I can feel it)
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
(I can’t believe you)
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
[Repeat]
(Sprechen sie Deutsch, baby?)
Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby, so why don’t you kill me?
(Know what I’m saying’?)


Here is a video of this great song. Enjoy!





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Tomorrow (Friday the 27th), I am jumping on a plane to join a cruise to give astronomy lectures. The cruise boards in Buenos Aires on Saturday (28th), leaving for Montevideo on Sunday the 1st, and then around Cape Horn and Tierra del Fuego to Santiago in Chile some two weeks later (arriving in Santiago on the 14th of March). This is the cruise schedule.

The cruise I will be on sails from Buenos Aires to Santiago via Tierra de Fuego and the Magellanic Straits

The cruise I will be on sails from Buenos Aires to Santiago via Tierra de Fuego and the Straits of Magellan


One of the things I am most looking forward to is passing through the Straits of Magellan, which are of course named after the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, the first European to sail around the southern tip of South America. The expedition that he led was the first to circumnavigate the Earth, but Magellan himself sadly didn’t live to see the end of the trip as he was killed in a battle in the Philippines.

At about the time that we are passing through the Straits of Magellan, I plan to give a lecture about the Magellanic Clouds, which are neighbour galaxies to our Milky Way, but only visible from the Southern Hemisphere and not from Europe or North America. I also hope to be able to conduct star parties on clear nights where I will point out where the Magellanic Clouds can be seen, as they are visible this time of the year.

The Straits of Magellan (not my photo - but I hope to get some like it!)

The Straits of Magellan (not my photo – but I hope to get some like it!)


The cartoon shows what is known as our "local group", our Milky Way galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy, and the various dwarf galaxies. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC) are satellite dwarf galaxies of our Milky Way.

The cartoon shows what is known as our “local group”, our Milky Way galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy, and the various dwarf galaxies orbiting each of them. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (LMC and SMC) are satellite dwarf galaxies of our Milky Way.


There are two Magellanic Clouds, the Large Magellanic Cloud and the Small Magellanic Cloud. They both lie about 170,000 light years away from us, and are in fact dwarf galaxies which are in orbit about our much larger Milky Way galaxy. I have only seen them once, when I was observing at the Parkes Radio Observatory in New South Wales (Australia) back in 1990, but if you get into a dark enough place in the Southern Hemisphere and use your peripheral (averted) vision, they can be seen with the naked eye.

To professional astronomers of today, such as myself, the Magellanic Clouds are famous for two things in particular. In 1908 they were investigated by Henrietta Leavitt, who found variable stars in them and was able to deduce the period-luminosity relationship for Cepheid variables, which is crucial in our ability to determine the distances to nearby galaxies. In 1923, it was discovering a Cepheid variable in Messier 31 (the Andromeda nebula) that enabled Edwin Hubble to calculate that it was far too far away to be in our Milky Way galaxy and must lie beyond it, showing for the first time that our Galaxy was not the entire Universe.

The other thing for which the Magellanic Clouds are famous in the 20th Century is that in 1987 a supernova exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Known as SN1987A, it was (and still is) the nearest star to explode since Kepler’s supernova of 1604. It was clearly visible to the naked-eye for many nights, and was the biggest astronomy event of that year. Studying SN1987A, because it is so relatively close, has enabled us to learn a great deal about the details of stellar explosions, confirming our theories and helping us refine the parts of our theories which weren’t quite correct.

The before (right hand picture) and after (left hand) of the Large Magellanic Cloud showing the supernova which exploded there - supernova 1987A. It was clearly visible to the naked eye for many nights due to its incredible brightness, and the first naked-eye supernova since 1604.

The before (right hand picture) and after (left hand) of the Large Magellanic Cloud showing the supernova which exploded there – supernova 1987A. It was clearly visible to the naked eye for many nights due to its incredible brightness, and the first naked-eye supernova since 1604.



The two Magellanic clouds in the same wide-field photograph.

The two Magellanic clouds in the same wide-field photograph.



The Large Magellanic Cloud, which lies about 165,000 light years away.

The Small Magellanic Cloud, which lies about 200,000 light years away.



The Small Magellanic Cloud, which lies about 200,000 light years away.

The Large Magellanic Cloud, which lies about 160,000 light years away.



Internet access allowing, I hope to be able to do a few blogs during the cruise of some of the sights we shall be seeing. I will also be scheduling some posts before I leave, so that this blog does not go completely idle during my absence.

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I have had a few people ask me about the Solar eclipse on the 20th of March, and whether it is worth seeing; or are people better off waiting for another one in the next few years? So, here is my attempt to answer those questions.

This upcoming eclipse on the 20th of March will be the last total eclipse visible from anywhere in Europe until 2026, but as you can see from the figure below, the path of totality is way north where no one lives! From mainland Europe and the British Isles it will be partial, and depending on how far south you are that will determine how partial it appears.

If you look closely at the diagram below you will see that everyone in the British Isles will see the eclipse as more than 80%, which is not too bad. Although the figure does not have the curve, I suspect in Scotland it is more than 90%. Ditto main-land Europe, if you can get up as far north as Scandinavia you will see a more than 80% eclipse. But, if you are in France or Germany or central Europe, it is going to be between 60% and 80%. Places like London or Cardiff (where I live) look like they will see an 84-85% eclipse, which I am pretty pleased about as I thought it was going to be less.

The eclipse on the 20th of March is total if you are far enough north, but to most of us in Europe it will be a partial eclipse. From the Disunited Kingdom it will be better if you are in Scotland than if you are in southern England or south Wales.

The eclipse on the 20th of March is total if you are far enough north, but to most of us in Europe it will be a partial eclipse. From the Disunited Kingdom it will be better if you are in Scotland than if you are in southern England or south Wales.


The next total eclipse after this one is on March the 9th next year (2016). But, for those of us in Europe or North America, it involves a bit of a trek to Asia. The eclipse starts near Indonesia, and sweeps out across the Pacific ocean. It doesn’t really cross any largely populated land-masses, apart from Borneo I guess.

This eclipse, on the xx of xx 201x, passes just to the north of Indonesia and sweeps out across the Pacific ocean.

This eclipse, on the 9th of March 2016, passes just to the north of Indonesia and sweeps out across the Pacific ocean.


After the 2016 total eclipse, the next eclipse is the big one. On the 21st of August 2017 there will be a total eclipse which will sweep across the continental United States! I am guessing that this will probably be the most observed solar eclipse in history so far; the only one to possibly rival it would be the eclipse which swept across mainland Europe in 1999, which is to date the only total eclipse I have seen.

Details of the total eclipse on the xx of August 2017. As you can see, this one passes right across the continental United States, and will probably be the most observed total eclipse in history.

Details of the total eclipse on the 21st of August 2017. As you can see, this one passes right across the continental United States, and will probably be the most observed total eclipse in history.


So, in answer to the question “which is the best solar eclipse to try and see over the next few years?”, I would have to say it is the 21st of August 2017 one. I also suspect that there will be tens of millions of people, if not hundreds of millions, all trying to view this eclipse, so the path of totality may get quite crowded! But the eclipse next month is well worth seeing, even if most of us in Europe will only see it as a partial eclipse. I well remember seeing a partial eclipse as a teenager, and I also saw a partial one in 1994. Whilst not as spectacular as being in the path of totality, it is still a memorable sight to see the Moon move across the Sun.

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At number 15 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 greatest songs of all time is “London Calling” by The Clash. I have already blogged about this song here, when I blogged about the album of the same name, which is listed as the 8th best album of all time. But, you can’t get too much of a good thing, so I am happy to blog about this song again!



At number 30 in Rolling Stone Magazine's '500 Greatest Songs of all Time' is "I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash.

At number 15 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of all Time’ is “London Calling” by The Clash.




This song just tears at you from the opening guitar note. So powerful, so energetic; to me it is one of the best songs to come out of the “punk” era of the late 1970s. It was written by Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, and released in December 1979. It only got as high as number 11 in the Disunited Kingdom singles charts, and didn’t break into the US’s main singles charts at all. Just shows that chart success is not always a good sign of what and what isn’t a great song.


London calling to the faraway towns
Now war is declared, and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, you boys and girls
London calling, now don’t look to us
Phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain’t got no swing
‘Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

[Chorus 1:]
The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin
Engines stop running, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river

London calling to the imitation zone
Forget it, brother, you can go it alone
London calling to the zombies of death
Quit holding out, and draw another breath
London calling, and I don’t wanna shout
But while we were talking, I saw you nodding out
London calling, see we ain’t got no high
Except for that one with the yellowy eyes

[Chorus 2: x2]
The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in
Engines stop running, the wheat is growing thin
A nuclear error, but I have no fear
‘Cause London is drowning, and I live by the river

Now get this

London calling, yes, I was there, too
An’ you know what they said? Well, some of it was true!
London calling at the top of the dial
After all this, won’t you give me a smile?
London calling

I never felt so much alike [fading] alike alike alike


Here is a video of this incredibly powerful song. Enjoy!





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Continuing with my list of the five top facts about Jupiter which BBC Five Live tweeted a few weeks ago, today I am going to talk about the fact I listed as number 2 –

all the other planets in the Solar System together would fit into it [Jupiter].

The tweet from BBC Radio 5 with the five most interesting facts about Jupiter.

The tweet from BBC Radio 5 with the five most interesting facts about Jupiter.



The list of the five facts

The list of the five facts


I think this gets across very clearly just how big Jupiter is compared to the other planets! I should add that this statement does not include Saturn’s rings, which extend a huge distance from Saturn, but if you take just the planets themselves without any rings (Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune all have ring systems) they would all fit comfortably together into Jupiter.

In terms of the Earth, the Earth would fit across the diameter of Jupiter about 13 times, which means that it would fit into it 13^{3} \approx 2200 \text{ times }!! The great red spot, which we believe is a giant storm system, could swallow up the Earth three times. Astronomers have been seeing the great red spot ever since telescopes were good enough to see it, which is about the middle of the 1600s. Although it has changed a little in size and appearance over these 400-odd years, it has remained a prominent feature of Jupiter’s cloud tops.



The comparative sizes of Earth and Jupiter. Earth would fit into Jupiter over 2000 times!

The comparative sizes of Earth and Jupiter. Earth would fit into Jupiter over 2000 times!



Comparing Jupiter to the next largest planet Saturn, we can say that Saturn would fit into Jupiter nearly twice (1.73 times to be more precise). This is, of course, not including Saturn’s large ring system. In terms of mass, Jupiter’s mass is 318 times the mass of the Earth, whereas Saturn’s is 95 times. Both are much less dense than the Earth, because they are mainly composed of gaseous hydrogen and helium.

When we look at Jupiter, we are seeing the cloud tops. If there is a solid surface we have never seen it, but we do infer its presence from our understanding of planetary formation. A solid, rock-like core probably exists and it may be similar in size to the Earth, but 99.9 \% or so of the volume of Jupiter is mainly hydrogen and helium gas, or hydrogen and helium under high pressure in some kind of liquid metallic state. The famous bands of Jupiter are caused by gases of different temperatures. The light-coloured bands (actually called “zones”) are regions where the gases are warmer are rising, and the dark coloured bands are where the gases are cooler and are falling.

Before I finish this particular blog, I will say a brief word about exoplanets (planets around other stars). I have blogged about this topic several times before, but with regard to Jupiter’s size and mass, most of the early exoplanets found were, in fact, larger and more massive than Jupiter. This is because our early detection techniques were not sensitive to find less massive exoplanets, but this has changed a lot with the advent of the Kepler Space Observatory. This interesting graph below shows the masses of exoplanet discoveries as a function of year. Note, the y-axis (vertical axis) is in terms of mass of Jupiter, so 10^0 means the same mass as Jupiter, 10^1 means ten times more massive, 10^-1 means one tenth etc. As you can see as we come closer to the present we see that smaller and smaller mass exoplanets are being discovered, and we have even found several now which are similar in mass and size to the Earth.

A graph showing the masses of exoplanet discoveries compared to the mass of Jupiter. The y-axis is logarithmic, so 10^{0} means the same mass as Jupiter, 10 means ten times more massive, and 10^{-1} means a tenth of Jupiter's mass.

A graph showing the masses of exoplanet discoveries compared to the mass of Jupiter. The y-axis is logarithmic, so 10^0 means the same mass as Jupiter, 10^1 means ten times more massive, and 10^-1 means a tenth of Jupiter’s mass, 10^-2 means one hundredth, etc.


Next week I will talk more about Jupiter’s rotation and how long it takes to orbit the Sun.

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At number 16 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time is “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles. This song was recorded in October 1963, and was the Beatles’ first number one in the US; released there in January 1964 and reaching number one at the beginning of February, about a week before The Beatles started their triumphant first US tour. In the DUK it would have gone straight in at number one in its first week, but went to number two instead because number one was already occupied by another Beatles song, “She Loves You”.



At number 30 in Rolling Stone Magazine's '500 Greatest Songs of all Time' is "I Walk the Line" by Johnny Cash.

At number 16 in Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of all Time’ is “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles.



For people who don’t seem to “get” The Beatles, I suggest you listen to this song. To me it epitomises why they were so groundbreaking – an apparently quite simple song with incredibly catchy lyrics, wonderful harmonies, and a great driving beat. But, as you dig deeper, there are really very complex musical patterns going on just below the surface. The hook is just that, a great hook that you can’t get out of your mind.


Oh yeah, I’ll tell you something
I think you’ll understand
When I’ll say that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

Oh please, say to me
You’ll let me be your man
And please, say to me
You’ll let me hold your hand
I’ll let me hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

And when I touch you I feel happy
Inside
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide

Yeah, you’ve got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I’ll say that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand

And when I touch you I feel happy
Inside
It’s such a feeling that my love
I can’t hide
I can’t hide
I can’t hide

Yeah, you’ve got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I’ll feel that something
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand
I wanna hold your hand


Here is a video of this amazing song. Enjoy!




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