Posts Tagged ‘Technology’

My latest book, Astrophotography, is now available. You can order a copy by following this link. Astrophotography is a book of exquisite images of space, including some of the latest images such as New Horizons’ images of Pluto, Rosetta’s images of Comet 67P, and Hubble Space Telescope images of the most distant galaxies ever seen. Each stunning image, reproduced to the highest quality, is accompanied by text that I have written to explain the object, and any background science relating to the object.


Astrophotography is now available. You can order your copy by following this link.

One unique aspect of Astrophotography is that it emphasises the multi-wavelength approach taken to understanding astronomical objects. For millennia we could only study the Universe in visible-light (the light to which are eyes are sensitive), but for the last few decades we have used every part of the electromagnetic spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays to better understand the Universe. This multi-wavelength approach has also enabled us to discover previously unknown aspects of the Universe such as the Cosmic Microwave Background, the true appearance of Venus’ surface which lies hidden below its thick atmosphere, and huge quantities of gas between galaxies (the intracluster medium) which emit no visible-light but prodigious amounts of X-rays.

Astrophotography is split into 5 sections, namely

  1. Exploring the Solar System
  2. Exploring the Milky Way
  3. Exploring the Local Group
  4. Beyond the Local Group
  5. At the Edge of the Universe

Below are examples of some of the beautiful images found in Astrophotography, along with examples of the accompanying text. At the beginning of each page’s text I caption which telescope or space probe has taken the main image, and at which wavelength (or wavelengths).

Exploring the Solar System

Two examples from the first section of Astrophotography, the section on the Solar System, are stunning images of Mercury and of Mars. The images of Mercury were taken by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. There are several pages of images of Mars, the page shown below shows an image of the Martian surface taken by the Mars Curiosity Rover, and an image of Victoria Crater taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.


Images of Mercury taken by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft. The four main images are spectral scans, and show information on the chemical composition of Mercury’s surface.

The section on the Solar System also includes images of Pluto taken by New Horizons, images of Saturn and Titan taken by the Cassini space probe, images of Comet 67P taken by Rosetta, and images of Jupiter and her moons taken by the Galileo space craft.


The surface of Mars as imaged by NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover and, at right, Victoria Crater, as imaged by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Exploring the Milky Way

The second section of Astrophotography includes images of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), the reflection nebula Messier 78, the Horsehead Nebula, the Pillars of Creation (part of the Eagle Nebula), and the Crab Nebula, the remnant of a supernova which exploded in 1054.

The example I show below is of the reflection nebula Messier 78, and is a visible light image taken by the Max Planck Gerzellschaft Telescope, a 2.2 metre telescope located at the European Southern Observatory’s facility in La Silla, Chile. The text describes the history of observing Messier 78, and explains what produces a reflection nebula.


The reflection nebula Messier 78 imaged in visible light by the Max Planck Gesellschaft Telescope. The text explains what reflection nebulae are, and the history of observing this particular object.

Exploring the Local Group

The third section of Astrophotography looks at the Local Group, our part of the Universe. The Local Group includes our Milky Way galaxy, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, and the Andromeda galaxy. Some of the images shown in this section include the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, NGC 602 (in the Small Magellanic Cloud), the Andromeda galaxy, Supernova 1987A and the Seahorse Nebula.

The example I show here is the Seahorse Nebula, a dark cloud of gas and dust located in Large Magellanic Cloud. This Hubble Space Telescope image was taken in 2008, and the nebula is in the bottom right of the image.


The Seahorse nebula is a dark cloud of gas and dust found in the Large Magellanic Cloud, an irregular galaxy visible to the naked eye and in orbit about our Milky Way galaxy. The seahorse nebula is in the bottom right of the image.

Beyond the Local Group

The fourth section of Astrophotography looks at the rich variety of galaxies found beyond our own neighbourhood. Examples are galaxies like Messier 82, which is undergoing a huge burst of star formation in its centre, Centaurus A, which shows huge lobes of radio radiation stretching far beyond the stars we see in visible light, colliding galaxies such as The Antennae galaxies, and evidence for dark matter such as the Bullet cluster.

The example I have shown here is the spread for Messier 81, a beautiful spiral galaxy found in Ursa Major. It is one of the best known galaxies in the sky, and is visible to northern hemisphere observers throughout the  year. The main image illustrates the multi-wavelength approach astronomers take to studying many objects. The image combines visible light, infrared light and ultraviolet light to teach us far more about the galaxy than we would learn if we only looked in visible light.


Messier 81 is a beautiful spiral galaxy found in Ursa Major. Hence it is visible throughout the year to northern hemisphere observers. The main image shown here is a combination of of a visible light image (taken by the Hubble Space Telescope), an infrared image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope, and an ultraviolet image taken by Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX).

At the edge of the Universe

In the final section of Astrophotography, I show examples of some of the most distant objects known. Images include the Hubble Deep Field, the Cosmic Microwave Background, the most distant galaxy seen (GN-z11, lying about 13.4 billion light years away), gravitational lenses and the recent discovery of gravitational waves made by LIGO.

The example I show here is the spread about the gravitational lens SDP81, a galaxy lying about 12 billion light years away which is being lensed (and brightened) by an intervening cluster of galaxies which lie about 4 billion light years away. The top image was taken at millimetre wavelengths by the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA), the bottom image in visible light by the Hubble Space Telescope.


Gravitational lenses enable us to see distant galaxies which would otherwise be too faint to see, but they also provide us with a way of tracing the distribution of dark matter in clusters.

I hope these few examples from Astrophotography have whetted your appetite to find out more. I really enjoyed putting the book together, and am very pleased with the quality of the images and their aesthetic beauty.

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This week, on 5th October 2011, the World learnt the sad news of the death of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc.

I found myself feeling surprisingly saddened to hear of his death, even though I did not know him and his death had long been anticipated. I think this was for two reasons; firstly because he was only 56, and secondly because it just shows that one can have all the financial and career success in the World, but no amount of either can ensure a long life.

The internet was awash with tributes to the “magician” of Apple computing, and as I read some of these articles I realised what an impact he had had on so many people’s lives. I learnt of his death through BBC radio, but via my iPad, a device he had invented. I continued reading tweets and Facebook posts about his death on my iPhone as I went into work, the iPhone device he had invented. And, when I got to work, I set about reading emails and preparing lectures on my Apple PowerBook, a device he had invented.

I am old enough to remember the beginning of the Apple Mac, which really started the whole “Apple revolution” in computing and consumer products. I was an undergraduate student studying Physics at Imperial College when, in 1984, the Apple Mac was launched.

To say it was revolutionary would be an understatement. It was the first commercial computer to use a mouse and icons, rather than typing in long-winded commands on a keyboard. It’s ease of use, the accurate rendition of text and graphics and many other features quickly made it the most sought after computer of its day.

I did not buy my first Apple computer until 1993, when I bought an Apple Macintosh LCIII. It was actually the first computer I had ever owned, prior to this I had always used computers at work, be they terminals connected to a microVAX or stand-alone Sun workstations running Solaris, Sun’s version of Unix.

A few years after buying my LCIII I bought my first laptop, an Apple PowerBook, with a grey 10-inch screen. By this time, Linux, the free version of Unix developed by Linus Torvals had been launched. Because the software I used for my astronomy data analysis in my research could not run on a Mac, I started using both a Mac and a PC running Linux. I would use the Linux machine for data reduction, and my Mac for everything else.

This was the mid 1990s, by which time the company Steve Jobs had co-founded was in dire financial straits. They were losing money, had suffered a number of disasterous failed products like the Newton, and had even licensed the Mac operating system to third party vendors in a desperate attempt to stop their ever shrinking market share.

Apple were in such a downwards spiral that they brought Steve Jobs back to the company, despite his acrimonious departure only 11 years before. Very quickly, the vision and sheer knack for inventiveness that Steve had always shown was rescuing Apple. Under Jobs, re-installed as CEO in 1997, Apple brought out the iMac, with its eye-catching translucent body. The iMac revolutionised the way computers were perceived, making them trendy and attractive for the first time.

In 2001 Apple brought out the iPod, which soon captured the lion’s share of the market for portable mp3 players. In the following year, it changed the Mac’s operating system to Mac OSX, a Unix based operating system that enabled me to ditch my Linux machine and start using a Mac for data reduction as well as all the other things I was already doing on it.

In the decade since 2001 Steve oversaw the development and launch of killer-product after killer-product; the iPod touch, the iPhone, the iPad, and a suite of beautiful desktop and laptop Macs. By 2011 Jobs had turned Apple around from a company on the verge of bankruptcy to the second largest company in the World, second only to Exxon-Mobil.

I read two wonderful tributes to Steve Jobs on the internet a day or so after his death. The first one read –

Three apples have changed the World. The first was given to Eve in the garden of Eden. The second fell on Newton. The third was given to us by Steve Jobs. Thank you Stve, RIP.

Thee second one was from the mother of a child with cerebral palsy. She told of how the iPad had transformed her son’s ability to communicate with the World. We often forget the transformational abilities technology can have on people’s lives, from being able to make video calls to loved ones to being able to update friends around the World on our status or whereabouts.

There is no doubt that Steve Jobs changed the lives of millions of people through humanising technology, and creating “insanely great devices”. The World is going to miss his passing, but we are lucky to have had his genius to enrich our lives.


The title of this article is a reference to the origins of the Apple logo. The story is that the bitten Apple is a tribute to Alan Turing, the founder of much of modern computing, and the leader of the Bletchley Park team who cracked the enigma code in the 2nd World war. In 1954, Turing committed suicide due to the shame of having been convicted for a homosexual act (a crime at that time in England and Wales). To sweeten the bitter taste of the cyanide, he injected it into an apple. Whether this is the reason for the Apple logo’s appearance is hotly debated on the internet, but the general consensus seems to be that the story is not true. I hope one day either Jobs’ relatives or the Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak will be able to deny or confirm the story.

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