Some Random Images

The astronomy weather has matched the politics lately – awful.  I was going to go out tonight but it’s looking cloudy now.  Again.  So I’m going to upload a few images that have been hanging around on my computer.  The reason they were hanging around on my computer was that they are not great…  first the Eskimo Nebula


Eskimo Nebula, obtained by undergraduates, this image processed by Alexandre Adler.  First attempt at this object.  Much room for improvement.

So what I found out is that this thing is very small, but quite bright.  So I should have used the planetary camera and 1×1 binning or something.  I’ll try again.  But you can just about see some details.  This was the best version of the data that any of us managed to put together and Alexandre Adler did it.  We should be able to improve on this significantly.

Next, we tried to get Mars but it was a bad night.  I am ashamed of this image, but its important to show how bad planets are from London when they are close to the horizon.


Yes that’s it.  Not great…  and now Mars is moving away from us, so we won’t be able to get good images of it until 2018.

Finally another image which is actually not so bad of The Whirlpool Galaxy.  If you follow my twitter you’ve probably already seen this.


OK, so that’s not so bad, it actually looks like a galaxy.  But the colours are a bit washed out, it appears to be green really.  I need to learn some more tricks to bring out the different colours.

This galaxy is about 7 Mpc away, so if we imagine shrinking the Universe, if we were 60 cm from the centre of the Milky Way, this Galaxy would be about half a mile away.

I had hoped to go out tonight and get more practise but its not good weather.  However I do think I have finally obtained all the hardware and software to guide the telescope with guide stars as opposed to just hoping it is tracking well, and I hope that will lead to much sharper images in the future, so watch this space.


Trying to Understand the Brexit Vote

People have asked me to write a blog post about the current Brexit situation. I voted remain.  I have noticed that many of my friends in London are surprised and upset about the decision people have made in the wider country to leave the EU.

Why did we have the vote?

At the last election David Cameron thought that UKIP, another party, which was formed specifically to leave the European Union, would take a lot of votes from his own Conservative party, so he told voters if they voted Conservative,  he would give them a vote on staying part of the EU. The amount by which this neutralised UKIP in the elections is unclear, although even if the Conservatives had done considerably worse, they would still have formed the government, albeit probably as leader of a coalition. Cameron never thought there would be a referendum because he thought he would have to go into coalition and the lib democrats who are very pro- Europe would block it.  However the conservatives won outright.

What Happened?

In general across the country, older people voted to leave and younger people voted to remain. However older people are more likely to actually turn up and vote, whereas younger people have a terrible voting record, the turnout for the 18-25-year-olds was a very low, 47%.

People in big cities voted to remain. London, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, Newcastle etc.  University cities like Cambridge and Oxford and Exeter voted to stay. Places like Cheltenham and the Cotswolds where many people live who work and commute to London voted to stay. Scotland almost completely voted to stay.   Everyone else voted to leave.

Of course in every area there were people on both sides, and there is no area where it was a kind of 95%-5% situation apart from Gibraltar.

I think there was a large group of people, perhaps aged between 25-50, who are not at all racist, understand the world is changing but voted to leave anyway. Why?

European free movement

In order to increase economic growth, cheap labour has been brought into the EU by allowing countries in eastern Europe to join up. It significantly improved those people’s quality of life, their prospects and their freedom.

The cheap labour came to the UK too. For a long time we had Polish plumbers and electricians who worked harder for less money. Now there are plenty of Bulgarians doing similar work. The people coming here are young and need hospitals less on average than people who have been here since birth. They are not (on average) looking for benefits either, they are coming here to work. They pay tax and every reliable economic indicator says that the UK as a country is richer (per capita, including these guys) because of their presence and industry.

Where it went wrong – Hospitals and Schools

Some if not most of the extra money from migrant workers should be used to support those areas where there are more migrating workers. This is not controversial, it is how a country works. Tax income and spend on hospitals and schools to support the people who are making the income. That money hasn’t been spent, the government has simply failed to operate the country in a fair way.

The government should spend some of this money we are making from immigrants on better public services in the areas where there are lots of immigrants.  Instead, they are closing many hospitals across the UK in an idealistic, idiotic, anti-economics austerity drive. My local hospital North Middlesex Hospital is now crumbling under the pressure because the other nearest A & E has closed and I live in an area with a large number of EU and non EU immigrants. There are similar hospital closures going on all across the country.

You hear people on the news saying “the UK is full, we don’t have any space for any immigrants, send them back home” and many of us think instinctively what a racist idiot.  However what that person is saying is that their hospitals are full. Their schools are full.  And they are right, they are full.  Nobody is doing anything about it and its getting worse and all they can see is more people arriving in the country.  The crazy thing is those people arriving are making money for the country. Who’s getting the money?  Hmmm, I wonder.

How about saying “look at all these people here from the EU making money for us, here is a new hospital, here is a shiny new school, isn’t this lovely!” THAT would have been the way to run the country and we’d ALL have got a lot richer .

Where it went wrong – Jobs

The minimum wage is going up and unemployment is quite low.  Personally I’m doing fine, it’s not easy living in London believe me but my quality of life is steadily improving.  However if I was someone who was working at the bottom of the pay scale, my life would not have been steadily improving.

You can’t pay immigrants from the EU less than the minimum wage as that would be illegal. However some businesses always run things so as to get away with whatever they can get away with and some EU immigrants are grateful to have any kind of half decent pay and minimum wage is good for them so they will put up with endless other abuses at the hands of employers. They play tricks like employing people on zero hour contracts so they don’t know if they will be hired from one day to the next.  These people’s job security has been stripped from them, they don’t know if they will be working next week. Can you imagine if someone asked you to adopt such a contract?  OK, if you are earning huge money that’s different – you can probably afford to be out of work for a while when you are looking for something else if you earn £100 K or something. Imagine being on minimum wage £14K with a family and a zero hours contract.

The British people at the bottom end of the pay scale have to put up with this because in many places they are competing for work with EU immigrants. Their lives are getting worse. How is it acceptable that the rich people’s lives get better while the poor people’s lives get worse?

The Government didn’t do anything about it, so the people told the Government to go and get stuffed.

But what about the Racists!

So there are a bunch of racists in this whole thing too.  Let us assume that the reasonable non-racist people I have been talking about here are only a few percent of the total. If they had voted remain then that would have been enough, the victory was only 52% to 48%.


People are blaming Jeremy Corbyn the leader of the opposition because he didn’t campaign harder. The fact he campaigned at all is a miracle, he wants to renationalise industry and as things are going that’s actually going to be more difficult under European laws which are being introduced as we speak. Why this is happening is crazy incidentally, our UK privatised public services are a disaster – we pay much more and get much less. So why the EU is doing this can only be for the benefit of the rich and powerful. I voted remain despite this, I’ll explain why below.

So Corbyn swallowed his view and tried his best to summon up some enthusiasm. To demonise him when he has gone out on a limb like that is not fair. That said, I do not think he has the oratory skills to win over the electorate and his kind of socialism is a bit old fashioned. If there is another vote for a leader of the Labour Party and there is an anti-austerity, genuinely left wing candidate who I think can address people better than Corbyn I’ll vote for that person, but if we end up with another bunch of tory-lite purple candidates I’ll be voting Corbyn again without any hesitation.

Why did I vote remain?

Well I’ve made it clear that the EU is great for science. However in general, the EU is a kinder, more left wing place than the UK. People in the EU pay more tax, they have better public services and I feel (felt) proud to be a member. I used to live in Brussels. The people at the EU (a huge number of whom are British, our influence was massive) are indeed blinkered and self-important to a ridiculous degree but they are also good people who believe in making people’s lives better. Unlike our current government.

Our country is not being run for the good of the people within it. The EU is (just about).  Unfortunately I believe that this Brexit decision will make things worse but I understand why it happened. My ideal road forward would be that the EU changes the way it operates to make things better for everyone including the bottom 30% and we somehow vote again to stay in.

Unfortunately we have just given power to people who will close more hospitals and schools.  They’ll probably try to blame someone else for that too.

The Science Museum Archive

On Thursday I visited the London Science Museum Archive near Kensington Olympia (not far from Shepherds Bush, West central London, quite far from Tottenham).  You cannot get access to this huge archive without special permission.  This was a cultural visit which may or may not lead to something tangible and if it does, I will tell you about it.  Anyway, the archive is the place where they put stuff which isn’t on show and it’s in this building, Blythe House:-

blythe house 003 Stitch(if you squint you might see a relativist checking his phone near the gate…) .

This building used to be the post office savings bank –  for those who remember, when you left your passbook at the post office, it would go here to be processed before coming back to you.

Anyway, this place is brilliant, and I didn’t know what they wanted to show us.  They took us to a room where there was loads of audio equipment.

Some of the oldest recording equipment in the world is here, including a crying doll, wax and tin-foil recording disks and the horns were apparently to help focus your voice down to the stylus cutting into the wax/tin, which had to vibrate only through the power of your voice…  Then through the range of electromagnetic recording devices, which culminated in cassette tapes.

They showed us crazy stuff like the Cello-phone duotrac:-

blythe house 035.jpg

which used photographic film to record sound!  Before this there were only 78 rpm records so this was in fact the first way to record an LP’s worth of music or sound in general, but it came out just before the war and didn’t survive the subsequent nonsense.  The Betamax of its time😦.

Then I spotted this:-

which I realised was a fairlight sampler (and if you don’t know what that is, here is Quincy Jones explaining to Herbie Hancock what that is… ) and I started to get a little bit more excited than I had been before.

Then they took us into the next room…

and we found loads of old synthesizers (and several mellotrons which strictly speaking are not synthesizers).  Priceless old synthesizers.  The last two (moog modular and ARP 2500) would cost many many tens of thousands of pounds each now.  If getting into the place had not been so comically difficult with locked turnstiles, CCTV, alarmed walkways etc etc I would DEFINITELY have stolen some stuff – these things need to be played and that’s it.

So by this point, me and one of the cultural people I was with were in a pretty weird kind of euphoria.  Then things started getting really trippy.  This:-

blythe house 031

Is a Pyro-phone.  Which means it plays music with fire.  Obviously.   And this:-

blythe house 025.jpg

Is a sequencer which makes up its own songs.

BUT THEN SUDDENLY WE RAN OUT OF TIME.  So the other group went into the room and we got left in another room.

Which was really boring.

Because it was full of telescopes.

(I mean, come on, I was expecting Salma Hayek to walk in at any moment wearing a Talking Heads t-shirt carrying a massive bag of pistachio nuts and some New Zealand Pinot Noir.)

Oh yes and by the way, this next wooden telescope just happens to be ‘on original Herschel‘ (their words not mine)

blythe house 040.jpg

And this was just a small part of a whole room full of goodies!

and then in the evening I got to say goodbye to my old student who is emigrating to Chile, as well as seeing our old friend Ruben from Stockholm.

So, yes, that was a good day.

Student Shots of the Orion Nebula

As I mentioned I have a group of students doing their third year projects at the moment. We got some stellar spectra and Jupiter like last year.  I wanted to get them to do some imaging as well, we’ve been trying to get some nice images, we tried the Crab but it didn’t come out very well.  So I got them to find the Orion Nebula, take images and then stack and process those images, removing the dark frames.  This is entirely student obtained.

Here is the first effort, student Karan Solanki was first to analyse the jointly obtained image files.  Doesn’t mean he gets the best mark but he’s done a great Job and now gets to move on and do something else.  (I’m keeping them all busy with lots of different tasks).  So lets see if anyone does better.  Of course the Orion Nebula is easy, but they have looked at other objects…  hopefully we’ll see them here eventually.


M42 Orion Nebula obtained by students, this one processed by Karan Solanki

Best Shot of Jupiter Yet


I have a new set of students doing their 3rd year projects on the telescope and they are very good.  I will post some of their stuff soon.  However, tonight I was out on the roof with them and after even the most enthusiastic one ran out of steam, I still felt like having a go at Jupiter, just a quick go, so I stayed up alone.

Two extremely frustrating hours later I managed to spend about 34 seconds getting this.

I’m supposed to do the following official bit now, people complain when I don’t so here goes:-

3000 shots at 83 frames per second, best 50% stacked, 2.5x televue barlow, skyris 618c, Celestron C14, about a million Zeiss lens wipes and an awful lot of bad language.

The students got some awesome images too, including an object we’ve never seen before.  I’ll report this soon, but I need to give them a chance to analyse their data first… (I’ve done a sneak analysis.  It’s awesome data.)

The Maxwell Society viewing the planetary line up

The undergraduates here at King’s College London have a society called the Maxwell Society.  Named after James Clerk Maxwell, it boasts some famous members in the past including Peter Higgs and Arthur C. Clarke.  Today they run a variety of events throughout the year depending upon who’s in charge that year.  This year’s lot wanted me to let them up to the telescope, which of course I was very open to but I realised that there are not so many cheap thrills with a telescope in the middle of London, you have to work hard for your pictures/spectra and your views through the eyepiece will be so-so.

Anyway, they asked about the planetary alignment which is currently taking place and when I told them they’d have to get in around 6am, they barely skipped a beat before arranging it. So this morning I went in at 5am.  gah.  Anyway around 20 intrepid astronomers showed up at the crack of dawn.20160203_063307

As usual, it turned out the conditions were less than ideal, it was very windy, which meant the “seeing” was very bad, which means that the turbulent atmosphere makes the image extremely wobbly.  That also means you can’t even think about using a very high magnification as the images just get worse and worse so I stuck with a 24 mm eyepiece which gives 156x magnification.  In principle I could combine my 11mm eyepiece with my 2.5x barlow and get some massive magnification but it would look very bad- all the imperfections of seeing are enhanced non-linearly as you increase magnification.   Since all the planets we were looking at were close-ish to the horizon this was not ideal.   Even on a good day you shouldn’t even bother trying to see anything less than about 25 degrees above the horizon in central London.  I tried looking at Mars before they got up there but it was… underwhelming.

However I showed them Jupiter with cloud bands and three moons visible and then we saw Saturn.. it was very shaky but every so often they got a clear focused view of the rings, albeit a bit small.  Then some views of the moon, even the moon looked shaky, indicating how bad the conditions were.  Despite all this, they really seemed to enjoy the whole thing a lot!  I very much hope that they come again to see some better views when the conditions are improved.


That moment when you realise you’ve been handling ALL your image files wrongly (or 65,534 shades of Grey vs. 254)

Another post so soon?  Well I’ve discovered something and its pretty significant.  It’s really rather embarrassing, but well like I keep saying I REALLY don’t know what I’m doing and I try to pride myself on always admitting when I am wrong, (and if necessary apologising although on this occasion I don’t know who I’d apologise to.)

I recently discovered something about the free image processing software GIMP (photoshop for cheapskates) – it is 8 bit.  That means within the image every pixel has a value between 0 and 2^8-1 which is 255.  If it is 0 then the pixel is completely dark and if it is 255 then the pixel is completely saturated and there are 254 shades of grey between those two extremes.

I also recently discovered something about our camera, it is 16 bit, so each pixel has a value between 0 and 2^16-1 which is 65535 with 65534 shades of grey in between.

Unfortunately I’ve been using GIMP to stack and analyse our images.  So if the camera was reading 100 on a particular pixel out of a possible maximum 65535 then once you read the file from the camera into GIMP it will divide everything by 256.  The closest integer to 100/256 is zero.  If we were to stack 20 such images, then 20 times zero is still zero.  If you use a proper 16 bit software, you would have 20 x 100 which is a respectable 2000.

So basically we’ve been missing out on a heck of a lot of detail.  Luckily I’ve still got the original image files, so I’ve been spending the last part of my holiday re-analysing and stacking some of those old images.

The difference is remarkable:-


These two images come from exactly the same data, cropped very slightly differently.  The one on the left uses all 16 bits while the one on the right is only 8 bit.  So all this time we’ve been getting much better images than we thought.  This makes me even more eager to get out and look at more things, but the weather is awful.  Luckily I’ve got a UG project coming up with the telescope, so that will give me a chance to get some new images…

So I do feel like a bit of a fool but a relatively happy one…