Thursday, 26 May 2016

The misreporting of science in the media

"Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament". Image: Michelangelo (fresco in the Sistine Chapel).

The ever-humorous John Oliver tackles the problem of how scientific studies are portrayed in the media. Sometimes though, it isn't all their fault, research companies themselves can be guilty of initially misrepresenting findings by sensationalising and dumbing-down the science to make it "sell", then what follows can become a game of Chinese whispers. My favourite quote from John in this segment: "Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament, it will either save you or kill you depending on how much you believe in its magic powers."

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Doodle afternoon

Light as a feather, by Louise Thomas, May 2016.

I don't doodle enough. I suffer from lack of patience sometimes - it takes too long to get what's in my head out on paper, or the results aren't as I saw them in my mind's eye, so I'm easily put off. I'm constantly abandoning half-finished projects, in pursuit of other seemingly more interesting ones, suffering from what Alvin Toffler described as "overchoice” in Future Shock - a 1970s social critique that hasn't lost legitimacy (indeed the rate of technology change in the decades since Toffler's lament gives him kudos for his prescience). Besides, I could be wasting my time doodling, when I should be working on some fee-paying client's stuff. Which is a somewhat ironic train of thought, as I waste heaps of time mucking around reading friend's Facebook posts and looking at pictures of their food, or watching crime shows on TV and speculating on whodunit. All well and good in moderation, but I can't help but feel that it's all time when I could have been making myself better at something - when did the patience to follow my passions get sucked out of me by mass media distractions? 

I suspect that in the last few years I might have become a little bit boring and there have been times when I haven't been too keen on myself or on my life's achievement to date. Getting distracted by stuff helps me to be, well, distracted from myself. But not today. Today I carped the snot out of the diem, I finished up a client's web updates, mopped the disgusting kitchen floor, then had a doodle afternoon - very happy with the feather. Did this blog post. Now I'm going to make a cup of tea and work on my novel. There are good days and bad I guess. This day is a good one. I hope your's was as well.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Pareidolia? No way, that really is a smiley face

Image: Mars Global Surveyor (1999), NASA.

I had a great time at the Tour of the Planets conference over the weekend. Life being what it is (having to coach netball on the Saturday) meant I only arrived fifteen minutes before I was due to go on, but my Wandering planets and the seven-day week talk went off okay, even if I had to wing it a bit when discussing "Sunday" as I'd lost my notes for that particular slide. 

I had a bit of friendly heckling from a couple of astronomers sitting off to the side of the lecture hall (Richard Hall and Ian Cooper - you know who you are), who reminded me of the two old guys out of the Muppets, and I told them so at the time. I also had a native Greek speaker (George Moutzouris) sitting in the front row, when, as my luck would have it, my talk was littered with unpronounceable Greek names - which I proceeded to murder in traditional Kiwi fashion. But, far from being a problem, the audience participation in the talk only served to make it more interesting and dynamic, and at least I knew they were listening (unlike the chap right down the back who definitely had his eyes shut). Would I do it again? Absolutely! Getting people clapping after you talk is a powerful endorsement. I felt pretty good afterwards, especially when a few people cornered me at the tea table later and wanted copies of the slides.

I managed to catch a couple of talks after mine, I especially loved a talk by Richard Hall on the Martian Chronicles. At one point he was talking about pareidolia, a human need to see pattern in random data, the reason why we see faces in things like clouds and trees etc. He had a series of quite famous photos of the Martian surface which showed images that we have identified as having "things" in them - like a woman sitting on a rock, hearts, a finger, Mickey Mouse, WWII helmets, faces, etc. 
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS file

He showed an image of Mars' Galle crater which I have no memory of ever seeing before. Made me smile, I can tell you. If there is a supreme being - they have a sense of humour.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Continental drift

Things I do when I should be writing my wandering planets speech.

The wandering planets and the seven-day week

A waning gibbous Moon, 15 April 2016 - Lower Hutt, NZ. Photo: Louise Thomas
Celestial observations to mark the passing of time have been used since the dawn of human kind. Early humans counted off the number of Suns to mark the days, followed by the changing phases of the Moon, which repeats approximately every 30 days, to mark longer periods, after all, it was easy to count the number of full or new moons that elapsed since or leading up to some big event. We observed seasons and the changing patterns of the Sun and star movements to mark the passing of a year, and from prehistory used this not only for migration, hunting and agricultural planning, but to mark how old our children were and to record and observe their transition into adulthood. These early observations of the world around and sky above of course laid the foundations for development of the calendar, that, with some variations throughout history, we would eventually use to divide the year into months, weeks and days. But what are the origins of the seven-day week as a division of time? It seems that this too, at least in ancient European and Mesopotamian cultures, was also rooted in astronomical observations.

I'll have the pleasure of giving a talk about the origins of the seven-day week and the significance of the order of the days at an upcoming astronomy conference on 13-15 May at Stonehenge Aotearoa in New Zealand's beautiful Wairarapa. Great dark skies and plenty of chance for observing if the weather holds - it's been a beautiful autumn so far, with plenty of opportunity for observing the planets. Jupiter in particular has been holding sway in the early evening in the Northern sky. The conference will be a great opportunity for me to show off my newly developed astrophotography skills.