Blog Admin Note #1

Regular readers will have noticed a few changes recently. I’ve added a blog roll containing a variety of links that I hope will, like the rest of the blog, amuse, inform and entertain. It’s really just a bunch of websites that I hang out on and reflect some of my personal interests / obsessions which may be of amusement.

News / Current Affairs

I like to read what the foreign press have to say about the big news items of day, here are a selection

Der Spiegel : English language version of the famous German magazine

The Hindu : English language news from India

Xinhua : English Language news from China

Le Monde : News from France (in French – use Google Translate)

New York Times : News from the USA

La Stampa : News from Italy (in Italian – use Google Translate)

The Lagos Guardian : News from Nigeria

The Register : The best IT, Technology and Science news from around the world, with a Private Eye sense of humour.

Al Jazeera : English language version of the Qatar – based news service


I listen to a lot of music, here are some of the free sites I visit

Nat Geo Music : World music videos from National Geographic

AVRO Baroque Classical : For audiophiles – the best Baroque music on the web in 128 bit stereo from Hilversuum. In Dutch, “Klik hier om te luisteren” = “Click here to listen”

Afropop worldwide : African music news and events

Rete Toscana Classica : For audiophiles – classical music and Opera in 128 bit stereo from Firenze. In Italian, “Ascolta” = “Play”

Accuradio : Free online music radio; no adverts, no DJ’s, just music. Not audiophile quality (on 32 bit), but huge range of styles and genres

Ali Farka Toure : BBC programme about the late, great Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure in audiophile quality

Old School Hip-Hop Radio : Huge archive of Classic Hip-Hop


The Vega Science Trust : Video and Audio science resources for schools (or anyone else who’s interested)

Science and Reason : Excellent primer on the Big Bang theory of cosmology

Bishop Hill : Climate Change sceptical blog of Andrew Mountford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion. Nb – one of the fastest growing blogs on the net. Don’t worry if you are not a sceptic, all views welcome as long as you are polite

Real Climate : Man-Made Climate Change website, with regular contributions from work in the field. If you want to understand the current scientific consensus then this is the place to go, but sceptics be warned – your comments are likely to be deleted

Plasma Cosmology : Alternative, yet intelligent, theory of cosmology for those who don’t believe in the Big Bang – well worth a read

Watts Up With That : The most popular science blog on the web from climate change sceptic US weatherman Anthony Watts

NASA Images : Gigantic database of images from space, includes the famous NASA Image of Day gallery

Judith Curry : Blog of award winning Climate Scientist Judith Curry

Fractals : All about Fractals

Sylvie Gallet Fractals : The fractal art of French maths professor Sylvie Gallett

The Sun : Solar and Heliographic research from NASA


Wolfram Alpha : Fiendishly clever online computation engine, calculates anything from a currency conversion to the area under a curve

WordPress : Seen the blog, think you can do better ? – then learn all about blogging with WordPress (the hosts of this blog). It’s simple and its free – what are you waiting for ?

Football on TV : listing of every football game to be shown in UK TV over the next few weeks

Chelsea FC : Official website

The Guttenberg Project : One of the oldest sites on the web, it is an enormous database of books on which the copyright has expired. They have been digitised and are available for free download. Why pay money for an classic book in e-Book format when you can get it here for free !

Me O Rin

Several stories have appeared in the press this week on a space theme; there have been many variations, but these two excerpts from the Daily Telegraph give a flavour; the first concerns the possibility of a prominent supernova, visible with the naked eye, in the constellation of Orion – the other concerns the possibility that there might be intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe. Both show the enormous pubic interest that exists for anything connected with space, and both show, in their different ways, the pitfalls awaiting us when we try to understand what might, or might not be “out there”. The supernova story, whilst it has been around for while has acquired a whole new lease of life due to the fact that one possible date for it occur is close at hand – 2012; which also happens to be the date predicted by some interpretations of the ancient Maya calendar for the end of the current cycle in human history and has got the pre-destination theorists in a froth.

For those unfamiliar with the word, a supernova is simply an exploding star. Current theories of star formation say that a star, such as our Sun, is a vast nuclear fusion reaction – and just like any other nuclear reaction, it requires fuel to sustain it; when that fuel runs out the reaction will either die down or, in a minority of cases, become unstable and explode. When that happens, for a short time the star can become thousands of times brighter; and when it happens to a star relatively close to the earth the result is a spectacular astronomical event, easily visible to the naked eye.

There have been many descriptions of possible supernovae from the historical record, but perhaps the best known is the 1054 AD event recorded by, among others, Chinese astronomers who reported that a very bright star suddenly appeared in the constellation Taurus where none had been seen before, close to the known star Tau Zeta. Previous instances of this phenomena exist in earlier records, the Chinese called them “guest stars”. The object was said to be so bright that it was visible in broad daylight for a full 23 days. By night, at the height of its intensity, it was said to be as bright as the moon and was enough to cast a shadow in the dead of night. As the star faded, it remained visible for the naked eye at night for more than two years before it disappeared from view. All that remains in the area now is the famous Crab Nebula, which is thought by some to be the remains of the explosion.

The star that is thought to be a candidate for supernova in 2012 is in fact one of the best known in the sky – it’s the giant star Betelgeuse (pronounced “beetle – juice”). For those of you who don’t know it, it is very easy to find right now. Just go out and look at the night sky in a southerly direction and locate the constellation Orion, as in the picture above. It’s very prominent – you can’t miss it, Betelgeuse is the bright red star in the top left. If this star where to go supernova it would be a spectacular and memorable – to find something as impressive visible to the naked eye you would have to go back to the Great Daylight Comet of 1910 (not to be confused with the much fainter Halley’s Comet which appeared later the same year), a massively bright comet visible in broad daylight, and taking up fully 50 degrees of arc in the night sky.

The star Betelgeuse is a massive object, known technically as a red supergiant. If it existed in our own solar system it would extend beyond the asteroid belt and almost to the orbit of Jupiter. Because of frequent changes in luminosity it has proved very difficult to judge how far away it is, the current consensus is that it’s about 640 light years away, but estimates vary from 200 to 1,000 light years. The good news about that being that we here on earth are quite safe from any fallout – we are simply too far away. What we would get would be a once in a century astronomical event that would forever change the night sky. Statements like a “second sun” are wide of the mark, something like the 1054 event is more likely; on that occasion the star was too faint to see before it went supernova, but in this case it will be a familiar and well known star that dies.

Whilst it is indeed possible that Betelgeuse might go nova soon, it’s very unpredictability means that the end might come soon, or it might come any time in the next million years. That I’m afraid is the current state of our knowledge of one of the most visible and most recognisable stars in the sky – we are not sure how far away it is or when it might explode. This tells us something very important about space – that our knowledge of it beyond our immediate solar system is scant and based entirely on theory emanating from what few observations we can make from distance. I mention this, not in order to deride astronomers and astrophysics, whose work I enjoy reading about, but simply to point out that that is the state of our knowledge right now, and until the day arrives that we have the means to travel to those places, it is likely to stay that way.

Now that we have properly established the true status of humanity’s knowledge of the cosmos we can look again at the story that speaks about alien life. A recent survey has been conducted of nearby Exoplanets – that is to say planets that orbit stars other than our sun. The great difficulty with exoplanets is that they are too small to be seen directly from earth, you instead have to try and deduce their presence by observing the star that they orbit and the effect that they have on it. This might be, for instance, changes in their luminosity that could be caused by a planet passing in front of them or looking for effects of gravity from a planet sized object. This last technique is well tested and was in fact used in the 19th century to analyse the orbit of Neptune, from which it was deduced that there might be another planet further out; this was later found by telescope in the 1930′s – it is of course Pluto.

The results of the survey, conducted by Dr Howard Smith of Harvard, author of books both on astrophysics and Jewish mysticism, have shown that the chances of alien life on any of these planets is looking unlikely due to the fact that the planets are either not of the right type, such as gas giants like Jupiter or Saturn; or are small rocky planets like Earth, Mars and Venus but are too close or too far from the sun for the conditions to be anything like Earth. You can say of course, that that is just the small area that we can see and given the enormous size of the galaxy, let alone the universe, then there must be such worlds somewhere further out.

When this view is expressed it is usually said that it is “statistically certain” that there must be life elsewhere. This comes from a formula known as Drakes Equation, after Dr Frank Drake, who proposed it at the first SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) conference in 1960. This formula tries to quantify the likelihood of alien life as follows

N=N*fp ne fl fi fc fL

Where N is the number of stars in the galaxy, fp is the fraction with planets, ne is the number of life-capable planets per star, and the fractions fl, fi, fc and fL representing planets where life evolves, where it is intelligent life, where they have invented long range communications and with the last one, fL, being the period of time when they can communicate.

Looks impressive doesn’t it ? The problem with it is though, that it is currently impossible to feed any real data into this – the best you can do is estimates for some (like the number of stars in the galaxy), but for most of the rest it would be pure guesswork. Any number that comes out of that equation would be, very literally, meaningless. Take the number of life capable planets for instance; although we have very well formed theories on how life evolved here they are in reality just that – theories that happen to fit the few facts that we have. There is no evidence at present that life exists anywhere else other than the earth, although the presence of past surface water on Mars makes it possible there was once something there, even if it was only singe celled. Until we have established that life has evolved in at least one other place, we may just have to accept the Rare Earth theory; that is that idea that far from life being abundant, it is in fact very rare; and may even be unique, at least for our immediate region of space. The SETI program meanwhile is still busily searching the sky, but has long since lost the funding it used to get from NASA, and now runs entirely on voluntary donations.

All this is of little real concern however since there is a much bigger problem for believers in alien life. And it is quite simply that travel to even the nearest star in less than a human lifetime is probably beyond any technology that we possess and is certainly beyond any inclination to do so on the part of any space agency. The only way for us to make contact with alien life would be if their “Voyager” (either the deep space probe or the fictional Star Trek namesake !) happened to stray into our solar system.

Which brings us finally to the meaning of the title of this piece. It’s a pidgin english expression from the Niger Delta that translates into standard English as three simple words that are the beginning of all wisdom, and are the most honest answer that we can give to the questions when will Betelgeuse go nova ? or whether we are alone in the universe ? ……

“I don’t know” !

Copyright ©2011 Savereo John

Anyone got an Ark ?

This week we have a guest post from our correspondent in Brisbane

It actually comes from an old mate of mine who is caught up in the Biblical events unfolding in Queensland, and who has asked to remain anonymous. His graphic account follows

“A quick note to all those who have checked in to see if we’re OK, and anyone else who knows us (and frankly doesn’t care!).

Brisbane’s in serious shit right now. There was a big evacuation from the CBD (Central Business District) and the low lying areas close to the river. There are a lot of these, as the river follows a very sinuous path through the city. Also the power’s off in these areas to stop the grid shorting out, so that’s adding to the misery there. The peak was reckoned to be at around 4:00am, when the main flood waters from upstream arrived and met a king tide… just bloody perfect timing. It wasn’t quite as bad as the huge flood in 1974, but still was way above the ‘major’ flood level. Most of the riverside infrastructure such as ferry pontoons, private boats and floating restaurants are now heading out towards New Zealand… It’s going to take months if not years to rebuild everything after this mess.

The media are absolutely loving this… every TV station is showing wall to wall news coverage with reporters probably outnumbering the remaining population whom they are now busily interviewing when they’re not interviewing each other and/or every available local/state/federal politician/emergency worker in the southern hemisphere. To turn on the TV last night meant being bombarded with OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!! on a pretty permanent basis on all free to air channels. Being totally shallow, I was watching highlights from yesterdays stage of the Dakar Rally!

For most of us who don’t live close to the rivers or creeks, all we have to worry about are potential shortages in food, water and fuel caused by some amazing panic buying yesterday (bless ’em all), and a rapid increase in mosquitos leading to Ross River Virus and Dengue fever. I heard on the news last night that at least one Bull Shark had been seen cruising along the flooded streets (they come up the river when bored, they’re big, fast, aggressive and thick, but lethal). That should give the snakes something to think about (the flood water’s apparently full of them and they’re described by the experts as “particularly grumpy at the moment”… nice!). Thankfully we should be too far south for crocs…

I don’t remember signing up for this! “