Thursday, 19 March 2015

Another hiccup for Mars One's mission to the Red Planet

Another hiccup for Mars One's mission to the Red Planet

Via New Scientist

I'm disappointed about this, to be honest - but Mars One always looked overambitious and flimsy considering the time frame.

Still would have really liked to go, though. Still would really like to do a proper trip to Mars, even if it would take longer and be far, far less sexed up than Mars One.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Electricity and Magnetism

There is magic in this world. We call it electricity.

OK, before everyone yells at me, I don't actually believe that electricity is magical. I do, however, believe that it's not exactly easy to get to grips with how it works, especially when you get to things like flux and Gauss's law and the idea of shielding conductors. This is based on my personal experience and the fact that out of 300 people in my year, a good proportion of us are having trouble with our electricity and magnetism course.

My year isn't stupid; in fact, we're probably the brightest cohort in a while according to the metrics my university uses.

I go to the university where they invented graphene and where Rutherford overturned the "plum pudding" model of the atom in his famous experiment. Not too shabby. It's not like we're a degree mill.

Anyway, the point is that even very intelligent people get confused by electricity and magnetism. In my opinion, this is because the concepts and methods aren't intuitively obvious - electric potential? Using imaginary Gaussian surfaces to find the charge enclosed by a surface? The field inside a conductor being zero? Charge on the surface of an electrically neutral conductor?

What the fuck?

I don't think any of these are particularly obvious concepts. Some of them don't have analogues with situations we're used to. And just doing the maths isn't particularly helpful; you need to train your brain in a whole different way.

But what I'm trying to say is that it can be done, that one day you wake up after puzzling over your books and things just make sense, that one day electricity and magnetism are not magic any more but concrete things that you understand, and that not understanding it in the first place was and is perfectly okay.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Inherently Evil

I never did like the idea of inherent evil. I grew up annoyingly strong-willed and a passionate believer in the idea of free choice; I really don't know why either should be the case. I don't think anyone's managed to break my strong will out of me yet, which is really a shame, but through twists and turns of life and most importantly through evidence I've been rethinking my ideas about free will.

Anyway, those two things set me in diametric opposition to the kind of people who believe that some people are inherently good and some people are inherently evil, and never shall they change. After all, people being able to make free choices and then having the will to carry them through sort of puts the kibosh on some people being predestined to make Jesus look mean-spirited, while other people are stuck with just being awful human beings. I have less of a problem with people who think that we're all inherently good; firstly, they're quieter, and secondly, they don't do that much harm.

The kind of people who think that humans are inherently evil, though...Oh. I have been angry with them since I first found out they existed. At first I was angry with them for daring to tell me about how evil I was just for existing when they didn't even know me. Later, when I grew up and learned about things like how you can use guilt and shame to mindfuck people, to break their spirits, to make them blame themselves for everything, I blazed with rage at how people could have the gall to twist the minds of others into screaming self-loathing.

When I was older and perhaps had grown a little as a person, I discovered that these people weren't just shadows but that they still existed. Worse, just as in my shadows, they were influential. Vocal. Said all the right things. Charming.

The important thing is that I thought I could identify them on sight. I could not. I let their hatred, which they justified with words about justice and oppression and the struggle, feed my self-hatred.

I have been linking self-hatred with being a good person, or at least not an evil one, not one who oppresses people just by existing, for far too long. I cannot explain how utterly fucked up it is to walk around every day believing that your very existence is awful, a stain on humanity, that you're inherently fucked up and psychopathic and every kind of bigot in the world, that no matter how hard you try you'll always be like this and so when people say that you should die they're justified, they're just expressing their anger-

-I can't go on any more. One of the reasons I find it difficult to go on any more is because I'm an utter fucking coward and people like that strike fear into my heart.

I believe that environments that encourage doubt, questioning, scepticism and debate are healthy ones. I like to be challenged, to be told "actually, you're wrong and here's why" because I know full well that if I'm not challenged I'll get complacent. And as long as nobody crosses any boundaries, I like having full-on, passionate sparring matches about anything I'm reasonably well-informed about.

The environment created by people like that - I don't really have a name for them - is nothing like that. It is stagnant, sterile, killed by fear, because in environments like that any disagreement is a reflection on you and not the other person. It is a reflection on the goodness of your character that you would even doubt them.

In other words, it's open season on you.

I cannot believe that the kinds of people who will charm you into believing that you're an inherently awful person are actually good people. This is because my metrics of good and evil are "how much suffering does this cause and how much suffering does this end?". I also have difficulty believing this because I've met this kind of person in real life. I'd rather not go into details, but suffice it to say that I was absolutely shocked and disgusted by their behaviour.

Not that I should have been, because it actually kind of makes sense.

Props to anyone who managed to read through this rambling mess, because you probably think my half-baked idea makes about as much sense as the rest of this steaming, incoherent heap of shit. I personally think it makes a little more sense than the rest of this blog post. But first, a gender-based digression!

You're probably familiar with the idea of "I'm a man, I can't help it" - the idea that men cannot control their physical urges, so things like sexual harassment are at the very least understandable if not actually okay (although some people actually do think it's okay and use this argument as a defence). There are many more ideas like that. They all centre around how people do things that are considered bad because they have little or no agency.

I'm not going to say that all those ideas are wrong, because I believe that structural and collective forces exist and that in some cases people have less agency or are less able to use it (for example, being under duress or severely drugged up). What I am going to say is that structural and collective forces are not everything, that individual agency still exists even if it is difficult to exercise, and that the idea that people are inherently awful removes that agency.

Please think about this for just one moment more. If you're inherently awful and can do nothing about it apart from self-flagellate (which won't make you stop being inherently awful, but you will confess your awfulness publicly and have more cultural capital than those poor unfortunate souls who need to educate themselves into recognising how inherently awful they are), and if you're therefore not a good person, why the fuck shouldn't you go ahead and indulge yourself in things that make other people suffer? After all, you can't help your inherent evil. Maybe you make a half-assed apology. Maybe you publicly self-flagellate again. Either way, the act of punishment is temporary relief and you go on your guilt-ridden way having not really learned a goddamn thing about why your behaviour was wrong. There's no point if you can't stop it, right?

This is one more reason, one more goddamn reason, why pushing the idea that humans are inherently awful is a terrible idea. It breaks your mind, it makes you loathe yourself beyond all reason, the damage takes years to undo, and it offers rationalisations and justifications for people to do some truly reprehensible things.

Friday, 6 March 2015

The Beautiful Thing About Waves

As pseudoscientific woomongers will never cease to remind you, waves are everywhere.

For once, they're right.

Fundamentally, a wave can be defined as a disturbance that travels at some velocity v. These can be travelling waves (which are self-explanatory because, you know, they propagate from one place to another), standing waves (the usual example is a plucked guitar string - the string is fixed at 2 points and so the wave produced ends up interfering with itself), transverse waves (the wave oscillates perpendicular to the axis of propagation, as in a light wave), longitudinal waves (the wave oscillates along the axis of propagation, as in a sound wave), mechanical waves (the wave travels through a medium, as in ripples on a pond) and nonmechanical waves (for example, light again - it doesn't need a medium to travel through).

In other words, waves are all around us, from light to sound to pressure waves to ripples on a pond. I might sound like a five-year-old at this point, but I find that pretty awe-inspiring, that one phenomenon makes up so much of our daily experience.

What I find even more amazing is that all these seemingly disparate phenomena can all be described by the same equation:

For the non-mathematical among us, this is equivalent to saying that on a fundamental level all these phenomena can be treated in the same way. They are different manifestations of the same thing.

I have to confess that I never really liked waves before coming to university. I found them unintuitive and the equations I worked with seemed just about completely arbitrary. Having now derived them, and knowing that I'm going to derive a world-changing equation (I know every first year does it but I still just find it so damn awesome), I have so much more love and appreciation for them.

This links into why I like physics: in my friend's words, eventually everything connects. The phenomena around us might seem disparate and disconnected. Galaxies are different from stars, which are different from planets, which are different from the things you find on planets like projectiles, semiconductors and people, which are different from atoms, which are different from the bizarre world of subatomic particles. This is just common sense. Yet somehow it's turned out that we can describe trillions of objects with relatively few mathematical approximations. Keep in mind that there is no reason why this should actually be the case; the universe is under no obligation to make sense to us. It is perfectly possible to imagine a universe where every object is described by several unique equations, or one where the laws of physics change unpredictably. (Hey, I never said they had to be realistic universes.) It is so very beautiful and elegant, and at every turn of physics we've been able to unify more and more concepts, to describe more and more things with just a few mathematical statements. It gives me hope that one day we can unify them all, that there will be one thing to explain everything in our observable universe.

If I ever live to see it, it'll be the most beautiful thing I've ever laid eyes upon.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

National Student Space Conference 2015

Well, the last day of February was one hell of a day! As I write this, I've now been awake for over 20 hours. Every single one was worth it.

The early bird catches the worm, but the late one misses the coach
I stupidly stayed up despite knowing that I'd have to get up at 3. Great decision, Osnat. Really great decision.

Anyway, I was woken up by my dutiful (and very annoying) alarm at stupid o'clock in the morning. Now, anaemia is a wonderful thing capable of making you faint and someone hasn't been taking her tablets regularly for various reasons. Guess who passed out sitting up in bed?

Yeah, that was a smart move. But in the end I managed to drag myself out of bed, get dressed, eat and somehow not faint on the way to the Students' Union - the sugar boost (and the caffeine from the Jaffa Cakes) probably helped. I was pretty hyper.

Pretty much the only low point was one of my friends not turning up, and in fact I'm writing this blog for her. She was absolutely gutted at not being able to come and I was gutted that she wasn't there. And also too busy sleeping on the coach - my caffeine and sugar boost was short-lived and so I basically died for about 4 hours.
There was just one problem with this: I talk in my sleep. I actually say some pretty weird things in my sleep, according to my long-suffering boyfriend, and usually sound drunk. So my friends said that I talk in my sleep, but haven't told me what I actually said and now I'm paranoid that I've said something stupid!

Back to the point. We turned up late because rain is a bastard and unfortunately missed the welcome and the first lecture. Fortunately, we managed to get to a lecture given by David Rokeach, the business director of Time Capsule to Mars (one of the many outreach projects where you put things important to you in or on a craft that then goes somewhere into space). One thing that really came out of that talk is that while many people are inspired by space, very few feel connected to it. Time Capsule to Mars aims to make space emotionally available to people by uploading their most precious tweets, photos and videos onto a payload that will then be landed on the Red Planet, waiting for future generations to recover it.
(for those who are interested: my answers were curiosity and hope)

That lecture ended up with us all taking a photo to send to Mars and me taking a selfie that'll cost me 9.99 USD to send to the Red Planet if I can be bothered to work PayPal to throw money I don't actually have at SPACE. They also charge 4.99 USD to send a tweet to Mars once the infrastructure's set up, which is possibly one of the most expensive tweets ever. Don't get me wrong, I can understand that Time Capsule to Mars has very little funding and is trying to be cost-effective, but how many people who aren't already emotionally invested in space are going to want to spend money on something they're accustomed to doing for free? There are also wider questions to be asked about the privatisation of space, but I've been awake for over 20 hours straight at this point and I don't think I can do these issues justice at the moment.

CubeSat fangirling
Next up was a talk by Steve Greenland about UKube-1 (pronounced you-cube-one, which I didn't find intuitively obvious). UKube-1 is essentially a research project of "how much stuff can we put on one small satellite" - and believe you me, small satellites are the future! Steve walked us through the trials and tribulations of the project with good humour and though I know some people found the talk a little too technical, I was personally squeeing the whole way through (especially at those gorgeous electronics) and truly inspired to do a project of my own. If only I could get funding...

One thing I did notice is that they seem to be very focused on systems and electronic engineering, as opposed to physics (although physicists are still needed for data processing). I actually went and had a chat with Steve and a postgrad about this afterwards while discussing using nanosatellites for humanitarian missions (yes, this is the kind of stuff we get up to). It's damn interesting stuff, but unfortunately they won't hire physicists. Even if I weren't a first year, this would rule me right out, and so I'm still stuck being a perpetually unemployable mental patient. (My foul language and flippant tone on this blog and my twitter probably don't help, but I'm not sure how many people put two and two together.)

Not everyone grows up to be an astronaut
And not everyone was born to be a king, and so on and so forth. But one of the overarching themes of this conference was that we need all sorts of people to get involved in space exploration and development - and not all of it is glamorous, but it's definitely challenging and worthwhile! Printech have decades of experience and developed the circuitry for satellites like Gaia (which is currently out there measuring parallax) and Inmarsat 4. Now, I'm a physics student and not an electronic engineer, but I have nothing but respect for the creativity and ingenuity of the fine folks who designed Gaia's CCDs.

That last tweet is crappy on account of sleep deprivation but also very important. Engineering gets a bad rap as being uncreative for two reasons: firstly, STEM subjects as a whole are often considered uncreative. Talk to anyone involved in STEM and it'll quickly become clear that even if some of us aren't the best writers, this is a damn lie perpetuated by people who suck at maths. Secondly, engineering is largely considered as applied - you use the tools you have to come up with solutions to problems rather than inventing new ones. This is not strictly true: while by and large engineering companies don't invest in basic research, it's in their interest to be sponsoring some kind of research as they come up against different, newer problems. In fact, having met a lot of engineers, while they're a lot more practical than I am they're very skilled at coming up with elegant solutions because that's their job.

But seriously, this is what happens when people who love space and go to Manchester, which is graphene heaven right now, are short on sleep and long on inspiration.

Someone's interested in going to space.

Putting the UK back into space
I wouldn't describe myself as super patriotic, but I'd certainly like to live in a country with a better space programme.
I must confess I had no idea who Adam Baker was, and he seemed pretty unassuming in his blue dress shirt. As he began to speak and to tell us about all the work he had done for various organisations before starting his own company, I gained a hell of a lot of respect for him!

Back in 1981, of course, Voyager 2 was flying by Saturn and inspiring a generation of scientists.
This isn't actually that stupid of a tweet - because of things like Soyuz, learning Russian opens up a lot of opportunities in the space industry. In fact, knowing Russian is a requirement to do missions on the ISS!

The UK is actually reasonably good at making payloads, satellites and such - problem is that we have no way to launch them and are relying on others, which is really putting us behind.

This is because governments, venture capitalists, angel investors and other such people who actually have money and aren't willing to just throw it at you (ah, cruel world) like to have costings and they like to know that they're going to get some return on their investment. Now, I'm not an economist, so having one around to help with my wild space dreams would be really useful.
And this is why. I wasn't able to get pictures of the graphs, but a staggeringly high initial cost and several years of loss require some major profit for people to fund you. This is probably true even with crowdfunding.
In most cases, it takes 24 months.

Unsurprisingly, sorting out the politics and economics comes first when it comes to getting the idiots in charge to not completely screw up space policy, with the actual technology a distant third. Political savvy is a very useful asset here.
Fortunately, now is the only time that me being an angry, overly political loudmouth has ever been useful. I now have more knowledge than I would ever care to use.
This is genuinely very exciting: relatively cheap off-the-shelf technology can and probably will play an integral role not just in prototyping but in running actual systems!
To be fair, Willetts had at least a modicum of scientific literacy, but as a nation I think we can do better.
This is very much me putting my geopolitics hat on - essentially, the US likes controlling space and things to do with space. This was openly stated in the lecture, so it's not just me putting on my tinfoil hat. If the UK space programme gets better I can see the US kicking up a diplomatic fuss, some gunboat diplomacy, or simply some prominent scientists or politicians coming to an untimely end.
We tried to finish off the talk with a demo of the motor, but unfortunately a PhD student reversed the polarity (in plain English: said student wired it the wrong way round) and it couldn't be fixed in time.

UK space policy
The last talk before the keynote speech was given by Dr Alice Bunn, who heads the UK Space Agency.

I made this tweet just as Dr Bunn started talking about regulation of space, since I'm generally pretty positive about using econophysical data to make policy and pretty negative about everything else, including this government. I have since felt pretty embarrassed about it since the UK Space Agency's regulations seem really quite sensible and don't involve putting absolute faith in the free market.

Space policy actually tends to remain reasonably apolitical; for example, the coalition government honoured Labour's space policy when they came to power (yes, this is an example of Labour not ruining Britain, to those of you who have gotten sucked into the purple and yellow eyesore). Joking and my leftist bias aside, I'd like to hope this is due to politicians deciding not to fuck around with things they don't understand and which are crucial (nobody wants to be the party that fucked up everyone's satnavs). In practice it's more likely to do with the military origins of space programmes.

Rosetta squee
You've guessed it...the keynote speech was about the Rosetta mission! Being proud to have lived through it, I was genuinely excited despite my blood sugar running low.
In all seriousness, he's an average and reasonably modest guy, an astrophysicist with a background in space plasma who has cool tattoos. Having met him after the keynote speech, he didn't come off as a misogynist in the slightest. (As everyone was celebrating Philae landing on 67P, he was wearing a shirt covered in semi-naked women and people made a fuss about it.) He talked unpretentiously about his early life and how he came to work for ESA.

I must confess I'm more interested in relativistic astrophysics, and more specifically in black holes. Our mathematics can't describe them, so there must be some really interesting and fascinating physics going on there that we don't know how to describe. As such, I didn't know just how old comets were - but perhaps they can give us clues to such things as how the Solar System formed. Plus we know surprisingly little about them!
Yes, this really happened. Some people thought that Rosetta would fly by the diamond-shaped asteroids to communicate with spaceships.

And now, we take a short musical interlude:

The ESA already had some pretty great outreach going on, but some older folks apparently remembered that Rosetta came out of hibernation last year (2 days after my 18th, actually) literally because of that song. (It's actually about a self-destructive party girl, but whatever helps people realise that space is cool, I guess.)
Reader, this is why I can't deal with the trope of scientists being impartial and objective in all things. One of the most profoundly moving things about the Rosetta mission for me was the extremes of emotion involved, from the whoops and cheers of the Rosetta team to the worry of the landing teams.
So far, so usual, but the way the compounds are distributed is pretty interesting and not well understood.
Now this is interesting! D/H ratio refers to the deuterium/hydrogen ratio.

Pizza is my one true love
After some awards, several interminable words from the corporate sponsors (I don't fancy mincing my words here) and finally getting a picture with Matt Taylor, there was a networking event and some wine. I skipped the wine owing to not having eaten much, but hung around to try and network. I have no doubt it was useful for graduates, but apparently nobody wants to hire 19-year-olds.

My internship plans are probably fucked, then.

I spent time exploring the University of Surrey campus in the dark, which is something I tend to do more drunk than sober. Although I wasn't that keen on the campus when I first got there because it was raining and because I'm a city girl, the rolling green spaces won me over. I really do miss being able to amble on down to the local park, or to take a calm walk with some hot chocolate and a second-hand book or three to Hampstead Heath.

During our amblings, we managed to find the Students' Union - and where there's a Students' Union, there's food! Having survived up until this point on dainty little sandwiches, we were all hungry. And there was a pizza place. And we were too hungry and tired to hunt out a deal any better than £9 for a 15" pizza because it cost us like £3 a head, and I was too hungry and tired to bother about being paid back £1.

Of course, this would be the perfect time to be told that actually the coach had rocked up at 6.30 and was leaving at 7pm sharp. Cue running back through the uni in the dark holding a pizza box bigger than the entire top half of my body. And making everybody very jealous in the process.

That was some damn nice pizza, though.

Cheating on pizza with a tube of Pringles
I hate travelling at night sometimes, I really do. Every journey seems to take fucking forever and this one was no exception. It was also ludicrously hot and I couldn't curl up to sleep (and besides, it was only 7 so it would have thrown my sleep cycle way out of whack - not that this really matters right now).

On the plus side, there were some really beautiful night exposures trailing off like comets. And there were Pringles which we shared whilst falling asleep and which made the most convoluted journey ever through the outskirts of Manchester rather more bearable.

By the time we got back to the Students' Union at 11, I'd been awake for 20 hours. I have now been awake for about 5 hours more.

It's rare that I'll ever say something deserves that much effort and time - but it did. I learned so much and I don't regret a single hour I spent at the conference.

Sunday, 1 February 2015


I have a mathematical mind. To those who know me, this is no great secret. To those who don't know me, it's not something that I try to hide.

I can't necessarily say that it's particularly fun, nor that it's particularly difficult. It's just how I am and I've never known anything else, so I can't compare. It's definitely useful for a hell of a lot of stuff, from analysing music and literature to doing the stuff I'm actually supposed to do.

What I will say is that it's frustrating. Imagine that you speak another language pretty much natively. To an English speaker, for example, this language is abstract, unintuitive and overall difficult to understand. The language is difficult if not impossible to translate without butchering it beyond all recognition, and people think you're strange for speaking it. All the same, English and not mathematese is the current lingua franca, so you grit your teeth and get translating.

Now imagine you stumble upon something wonderful. It's amazing, powerful and a masterful use of your language. You want to show it to everyone.

Problem is that it's nearly untranslatable without a lot of butchering! All the same, you try and explain it to people and are rewarded with...blank stares. Confusion. Hell, maybe even fear.

It gets annoying, you know?