Why I always take my son outside to watch the ISS fly over.

“Quick!”, I yell….. “It’s about to come over”.
My son jumps off the sofa and heads out of the back door with me.
We stand in the cold night air, looking up at the sky. Far to the west, a small bright dot begins to move across the blackness. It’s barely noticeable at first, masked by the ever present glow of the light pollution coming from our nearby city. Our patience is rewarded however. The dot has become brighter and faster and is overhead now.
We point up at it, grin at each other and marvel at this incredible sight zooming across the night sky.
So why do I think that taking my son outside to wave at the International Space Station (ISS) is so important? Well, to many people it has just become another “thing” to look at or photograph in the night sky but for me it represents something else, something quite important.

The ISS flies overhead. © Charles Simpson 2015

Like many other 13-year-olds across the country, if I’m not careful, my son’s life would revolve around electronic gadgets – his phone, his Xbox and computer. So it’s really great to be able to break into that “virtual” circus and do something different and, in my opinion, more rewarding.
And that’s where astronomy comes in. We actually started in a fairly low key way, remembering names of the moons various planets in the solar system as a sort of game whilst walking the dog at twilight. I’m pleased to say with a little time and encouragement, he now really loves the time we spend outside under the starry skies, looking at various astronomical objects and constellations. After only a short time, he could name many of the constellations in the night sky and can now use certain asterisms and constellation features to locate other easily visible astronomical objects such as star clusters and named stars. Even thinking on a larger scale, he has a good grasp of our place in the universe (well, astronomically speaking anyway!).
Many people might regard astronomy as a dry subject and firmly entrenched in the world of science but that’s not the case at all or at least it certainly doesn’t have to be! The opportunities for using astronomy as a vehicle to engage kids in a variety of subjects is huge and very wide ranging. With a few ideas at the ready and little nudge in the right direction, the possibilities are plentiful.

For modern kids, it’s so easy to get lost in the easy attractions of the virtual world.
My personal belief is that it’s really important for them to take time out from the ‘small things’ (ie. the day to day stuff), to gain an appreciation of the bigger things. A wider world of science, history, art and wonder.
And that brings me back to the ISS.
The power of the ISS is not just in the science experiments completed onboard – it’s not in the astronauts’ amazing journey to and from the station – it’s not even in the fact that the ISS itself is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of science, engineering and international co-operation.
For me, it’s the power to inspire!
It’s that little “wow” you get when you explain that it’s bigger than the size of a football pitch, has more space than a six bedroom house, is travelling at over 17,000 miles per hour, orbits the earth over 15 times a day and has a crew of six brave men and women who live and work aboard for six months at a time.
So the next time you get chance to pop outside for a look …… give it a try.
Whether you’re in the middle of a city or in the middle of the countryside, it doesn’t matter. You’ll still be able to see it.

Links to ISS Tracking websites
A quick search of the internet will bring up many websites that will track the position of the ISS. Here are a couple of useful ones to get you started.

NASA’s “Spot the Station” webpage with a guide on how to see the ISS from your location including the times to go outside for the best view. http://spotthestation.nasa.gov/sightings/

The ISSTracker website does exactly what is says on the tin and tracks the position of the ISS in real time. http://www.isstracker.com/

I wrote this blog post over two years ago now, when I was the guest blogger for the amazing Kielder Observatory. My son is now 15 and looking at careers in the space sector.
From tiny acorns, massive oak trees grow. 🙂


To The Moon and Back Again – An Evening with Al Worden

Having seen Al Worden before, I was under no doubt that it was going to be a super evening and I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed.
After the brief preamble and introduction by Mark Hempsall, the president of the British Interplanetary Society (BIS), Al took the stage.
Standing behind a purpose built podium, Al shared the stage with a giant model of the docked Lunar and Command Modules suspended over the Apollo 15 mission logo.
Al’s theme for the talk – a brief walk through the history of NASA spaceflight.

Starting at the beginning, Al took over 100 of the assembled crowd through the Mercury and Gemini programs until finally reaching the beginning of the Apollo program.
He explained the events that led up to the terrible pad fire of the Apollo 1 mission and spoke of the reasons behind the tragedy and the lessons that were learned by NASA.
Moving on through Apollo 7 and the near disaster of Apollo 13, Al began to share memories and anecdotes of his own Apollo 15 mission.
He began by explaining how the logo bore the Roman numerals XV in the form of crater shadows and how an Italian underwear designer came to be the company making NASA space suits.
Moving on to describe the gentleness of the launch, Al then explained how nice it was to have time on own after releasing the Lunar module containing David Scott and James Irwin, joking that after spending over three days in close confinement with them, it was nice to have some space!
As part of this time on his own, Al tells the audience how he removed the central seat from the command module to give himself extra room to move about and how this backfired on him slightly when, during a main engine retro burn, he was thrown from one of the remaining seats into a wall mounted g-pad due to a lack of bracing with the centre seat removed.
Al emphasised the scientific content of the mission and spoke of the some of the instrumentation aboard the service module including a mass spectrometer – a device used to analyse the composition of the thin lunar atmosphere. After saying that it had detected nothing for the first two days of his solo mission orbiting the moon, he had been contacted by mission control about some unexpected results. It turned out that it had picked up the liquid waste dumped into space from the Command module which, much to the crowd’s delight, Al likened to a cloud of white urine ‘snow’ that followed Endeavour wherever it went.

Speaking about the last parts of his Apollo 15 mission, he related the story of the iconic photo taken by James Irwin during his EVA – the first ever deep space extra vehicular activity. With his typical dry sense of humour, he jokingly blames Irwin for only taking a picture of his back and feet as he retrieves the film from the Scientific Instrument Module (the SIM bay) on the side of the service module, even though Irwin insisted the camera ‘jammed’. At this, Al rolls his eyes and comments on the camera not having jammed whilst James took a thousand shots on the lunar surface, to which the crowds laugh again.

He also relates the tale of the unofficial disposal of bags of solid waste from the astronauts, saying that much like the urine ‘snow’ previously mentioned, these bags would follow the CM all the way back to Earth on the return journey but that “NASA could sort that crap out” when they got back.
Unsurprisingly, this was also very well received and met with yet more riotous laughter.
Al finished off the history of NASA spaceflight talking about the space shuttle and how he percieved it to be a more dangerous vehicle than the Apollo CM citing the tragedies of the Challenger and Columbia vehicles. He brought the presentation full circle by comparing the Apollo Saturn V vehicles and the new NASA space launch system (SLS) saying he was pleased to see a retun to a capsule type vehicle, much like the planned Orion project.

At the point where Al’s talk had finally reached an end and the huge applause was dying down, David Hawksett from Guinness World Records took the stage. Many of the audience had been at the Reinventing Space conference diner the night before to see Al presented with his World Record for the most remote human being and assumed it was to be a repeat of the same but for this nights audience.
But no! Over the next few minutes the audience were delighted to see Al presented with another World Record – the first ever “deep space” (ie. beyond LEO) EVA. This was especially poignant as whilst other astronauts in the future will eventually travel further and be ‘remoter’ than Al, this award for being the first, would never be broken and would always remain Al’s.

With the main talk concluded the serious business of signing got underway in an adjoining room. People waited patiently in line and had options to purchase Al’s excellent book “Falling to Earth” now on its 16th reprint and a range of fine quality prints for Al to sign.
Patient and generous to a fault, Al always took the time to have a short chat to people who had waited to see him for a signature.
As I was manning the signing table for the BIS, I got to see first hand the massive range of space related items that people had brought for Al to sign. Some of the more notable items included, a moon globe, a huge mission logo, the original prayer sheets from the recovery ship’s chaplain and even some exceptionally rare Alan Bean artwork.

Whilst Al’s talk and signing provided the main focus for the evening, a number of other tables and displays had been set up.
The BIS had set up a great stand of information and merchandise in the foyer to the main hall and signing room. The display also included a superb array of space related auction and raffle items all kindly commissioned and donated for the event.
Nick Howes, of Aerolite Europe, had a great display of meteorites and kindly donated all of his profits from the event to Children in Need.

After quite a few people had left and Al had been backwards and forwards a couple of times for various photoshoots, he returned finally to the signing table. What came next was a testament to kind and generous nature of a true gent.
One of the guys who had been waiting quite a while for Al to return in order to get a signed copy of his book, finally got his chance and asked Al a question about his piloting of the command module during re-entry. As Al began to speak, more people gathered round to listen to another smaller and more intimate talk. Complete by diagrams on a scrap of paper, Al explained the intricacies of re-entry. He explained to the assembled dozen of us how the 3 degree variation away from perpendicular was enough to allow the CM to skip through the atmosphere and how by firing the thrusters to effectively roll the CM left or right would change the orientation sufficiently to “steer” it.
Fascinating and such a privilege!

With final books and pictures signed and a pint of fine English ale drunk (by Al), the event finally concluded.
I think it’s fair to say that there cannot have been a single person who left disappointed after such a great night.

A big thanks go out to the British Interplanetary Society for hosting such a great event and especially to Vix Southgate for co-ordinating and organising it all.

Scientific Heritage and WW2 Legacy – A Visit to RAF Stenigot

The old RAF Stenigot base is set high up in the Lincolnshire Wolds and is a site I had been meaning to visit for a long time.
The site began with the large Radar mast (now a grade 2 listed structure) that was part of the Chain Home network of early warning radar installations dotted all around the country. Chain Home (often shortened to CH) was the codename for the system designed to protect Great Britain from the threats posed by Luftwaffe (Luftflotte 5 in particular) during WW2.


After the war had ended, the site was retained and further developed. In the 1950s, a number of large tropospheric scatter dishes were installed as part of the N.A.T.O. ACE High communications system, receiving the designation UBIZ – Stenigot.

The ACE High system used tropospheric scatter (also known as troposcatter) which is a method of communicating using microwave radio signals transmitted over considerable distances (often up to 300 km) by effectively ‘bouncing’ the signal off the upper troposphere. In reality, this signal back scatter is caused by the refraction of transmitted radio waves in the upper (and more turbulent) parts of the troposphere resulting in only a small amount of the original signal strength being received.

The RAF Stenigot base closed in 1988 and by the mid 90s had nearly all been demolished.
The radar tower is a grade 2 listed structure (thankfully) and is still used by the RAF aerial erector school (now based at RAF Digby) to select potential new recruits.

The ACE High dishes now sit forlornly towards the edge of a nearby field. I felt somewhat saddened by this. I would have been incredible to see the site when it was still complete.

The selection of images below show the dishes and radar tower as they are today but even in their degraded state they still hold a certain appeal and stand (a now silent) testament to the scientific achievements of the past.

Fallen giants.


My son sitting in the centre of one of the dishes.


The rear of the dishes showing the supporting structure.









The abandoned dishes seen from a distance.


The ACE High dishes as they would have looked. Photo © D. Farrant

The tropospheric scatter dishes as they would have looked. Photo © D. Farrant

Comet Tales – Exciting ISON

Now that all the excitement has died down a little, I felt it only right that poor old ISON got at least one blog post from me, to commemorate its passing.
I, like many others (my fellow astro-obsessed people), watched intently the journey of comet ISON over the last couple of weeks of November to today in early December, culminating at the very end of November (perihelion on the 28th) in ISON’s passage around the sun and thence to its final demise to naught but a wisp of dust and particles (although speculation still abounds!).


A time-lapse image of comet ISONs perihelion.

This information above probably comes as no great shock to anybody.
Anyone into space and astronomy was watching.
However ……
I feel I have to comment on the unpresidented activity that ISON’s slingshot round the sun caused. I for one was glued to my twitter feed, the helioviewer website and the NASA and ESA feeds of LASCO, SOHO and STEREO data.
It was joyous to behold !
….. but not because of ISON itself but of what it caused. The huge level of interest in this space based phenomena. A surge of tweets and posts, as so many like-minded science lovers looked on, and speculated, postulated and discussed.
But it became more than just the science community, for a time ISON entered the domain of the common man and sought to complete almost as a celebrity. It was trending on twitter, discussed on local radio stations and given plenty of attention in the national media and television.
How wonderful that science could be brought to the fore and engage so many people by the travel of a lump of icy rock that began its journey from the very farthest reaches of our solar system over a million years ago.

C/2012 S1 (ISON) ….. I salute you !

The Higgs Field – Fact, Fiction or Football?

Update …. I really should finish a post in better time. Its been nearly a week since England lost to Italy at the football and I can hear the final (Italy vs Spain) on the telly, so please forgive my delay in getting this post out.

After the fuorre surrounding the press release given by the joint CMS and ATLAS teams at CERN last December, I thought I might take a short time to let things calm down a bit before I commented. Although a fair bit longer than I had anticipated waiting, it now seems that the dust has settled, so i thought I’d just have a quick look over the posted results and offer up my 2p worth. This is just before the upcoming ICHEP 2012 conference, which will undoubtedly see the dust well and truly stirred up again and set the cat amongst the pigeons (or at very least, set the world of the quantum spectator ‘flapping’ yet again).
The long and short of the last conference is that although the Higgs could not yet be confirmed, the main two ‘Higgsy’ experiments at the LHC, CMS and ATLAS, had closed the gap in the energy spectrum for where the Higgs can’t be. With the shrinking of the mass availability window to 110 to 145MeV the probability of successfully finding this elusive boson must surely be shrinking too??? It really is running out of hiding places !!!!
One glimmer of hope is the “spike” at approx 125GeV. This increased probability point has been independently seen by both of the main experiments and I guess the last six months furious data collection and analysis by the teams at ALTAS and CMS might (or might not) be further confirmed at the ICHEP conference in 3 days time.

Without the Higgs particle and it’s associated Higgs field, the standard model of particle physics starts to look a bit nervous.

I guess before we go too much further I ought to explain just exactly what a Higgs field is? I can’t really do that without talking about the much talked about (and often misunderstood or misquoted) “Higgs boson”.

I’ll try and keep it as simple as possible (for my own sake as much as anyone else I suspect!).
The Higgs boson or Higgs particle is the theorised member of the group of subatomic particles called bosons. I guess you might have read some of my other posts so you’ll know what a boson is. For those that don’t, a boson is the subatomic particle that carries or mediates a force or quality. In the case of the Higgs, this is mass. The standard model theorises that just as the photon is the carrier for the electromagnetic force, the gluon for the strong nuclear force and the W and Z bosons carry the weak force – there must be a subatomic particle that gives all the hadrons mass. This is what the Higgs does – in theory!
So whats this Higgs field ………? Well, putting aside explanations about SU(2) symmetry breaking etc the simplest explanation is that the Higgs field is a quantum effect that permeates everything. As a particle travels through this field it acquires (inertial) mass. The method by which things gain their mass from Higgs field is called the Higgs mechanism. Lastly, since Higgs is a quantum field it must also have a particle associated with it…….. and there we are back to the Higgs boson.

It is however, proving to be remarkably elusive! But as previously stated …….. without this missing link, the standard model of particle physics starts to fall down as there is nothing to explain the mechanism for why things have mass.
There are a number of problems facing experimental physics in search of the Higgs. The first is that it cannot be directly seen or detected. The only way to mark its discovery is to look for statistically significant events in the the decay remnants of high speed (and therefore high energy) proton/proton collisions, such as those at the LHC at CERN. The best indication of detection is the production of two high energy photons. Alas, This is also the rarest.
It is also very very short lived – somewhere in the region of 10-12 seconds. Lastly, even the mighty LHC produces only very small amounts of these bosons, completing the difficulty of detection.

With this in mind it seems almost a competition between the two experiments (ATLAS and LMS) at CERN to see who, if either, will get a glimpse of the Higgs first.

So….. to go back to the original question of whether the Higgs Field is fact or fiction, the answer is …… we’ll all just have to wait and see. In the mean time, as we’re just about to see the end of Euro 2012, I’ll stop pondering this and get back to the football !!!! 🙂

Hope for the future – geniuses in our midst!

Although that might sound like a mysterious way to start a post, don’t worry. Its not. I’ll say instead that it’s positive and encouraging.
I have spent the last week in a primary school looking at the next crop of Britain’s would be scientists, politicians, lawyers, farmers, doctors, till operators and benefit acceptees. A very diverse range of 7 to 11 year olds! And yes, I’ll freely admit that to give pupils arbitrary labels (as above) at such as young age is wrong. However, the realist in me says that from within any such group of youngsters, there will inevitably be a spread of life outcomes.

However, during this week of science enrichment and observations, I had the privilege to sit next to a nine (nearly ten) year old boy who was shortly to be put in for a maths GCSE. This, I was informed, was only going to happen as he would get an A* and anything less would disappoint. Pushy parents aside, I was so impressed that a nine year old could grasp a level of mathematics that 99% of the populous would still need an additional 4 to 5 years minimum, of schooling before being ready for that level qualification that I then began to imagine what this young man, sitting quietly next to me on a laptop, might be capable of as he nears adulthood. What might he accomplish, what goals would he have and in what direction might his, love of and aptitude for maths, take him?

A flight of fancy, I know, but could I have been sat next to the next Feynman???
Who knows?! ……. but how often can anyone say that have sat next to a potential genius?

Detector Death Match @ CERN

With the up and coming ICHEP conference which kicks off with CERN’s intro on the latest round of Higgs searching, I felt I just had to post the following pic I hastily created this afternoon.
(Its never a good idea to let me get bored!)

On a slightly more serious note, it will be very interesting to see which (if either) experiment manages to find some decent evidence of the Higgs particle first.

More Soup (part 3) – The Bosons

Ok so here we are again.
We’ve done the leptons…….
We’ve looked at the hadrons ……..
So what’s next ….?

Meet the Bosons !

So the first question that springs straight away to most peoples lips is the same as it was for the other ‘Soup’ posts concerning leptons and hadrons, namely ….. “what the hell is a boson?”

Great questions says I and unfortunately slightly more difficult to answer clearly to those without at least a modicum of science in their background.
The simplest answer I could come up with is that bosons are fundamental particles that are concerned with ‘force’ unlike the leptons and hadrons (which are collectively called the fermions) which are particles of ‘matter’.

Anticipating the blank stares of some readers ……. How can you have a particle that is concerned with a force ?????
A better way of thinking about it would be to imagine it as a particle that ‘carries’ or ‘mediates’ a force rather than actually is the force itself.

Let kick straight off with some names and descriptions.
The bosons are categorised into six types. There are four ‘gauge’ bosons – the photon (y), the gluon (g), the W boson (W±) and the Z boson (Z0) – all of which have been proved and observed experimentally.
In addition to these primary four, there are two other, much stranger, bosons. These are the Higgs boson (H0) and the graviton (G).

Proton-proton collision at the LHC – the search for the Higgs particle.

Each of these bosons is the force carrier for one of the fundamental forces in the universe.
The photon is the carrier of the electromagnetic force, the W and Z bosons mediate the weak nuclear force and the gluon mediates the strong nuclear force.
The graviton, as it’s name suggests, is theorised to be responsible for the force of gravity but what about the Higgs?
The Higgs boson is postulated to be the fundamental force carrying particle that is responsible for giving mass to all matter. Thats the easy way to put it.
The slightly (and by that I mean a lot!) more complex way of referring to this phenomenon is to say that under the standard model of particle physics, something called the “Higgs Field” gives mass to some fundamental particles via spontaneous symmetry breaking using the Higgs mechanism. Thats pretty mind blowing stuff so I’ll leave that thread right there for the time being. The next post might be my attempt at explaining it a little more clearly – you never know 😉

These forces ……..? What exactly are they? and what do they do?
Good questions.
We might as well start with the ‘biggie’ and the one most people will be familiar with.

Electromagnetism was originally thought to be two separate forces, electricity and magnetism, but is now unified into the single force. It is the force responsible for just about everything in the world around us. It gives shape to all matter through the intermolecular forces between individual molecules. It binds electrons to the atomic nucleus in various ‘shells or orbits’ (not the best description, chemists will know why, but good enough for here) to form atoms which are in turn used to build molecules. This electron binding (and subsequent interacting and releasing) is the basis for all chemistry. Electromagnetism manifests as both electric fields and magnetic fields. Both of these phenomena are simply different aspects of electromagnetism. A changing electric field generates a magnetic field and conversely a changing magnetic field generates an electric field.

What’s up next …..?

Strong nuclear force.
The strong nuclear force, sometimes called the strong interaction, is the force responsible for keeping the nucleus of an atom ‘stable’ for want of a better start point. It is present in two forms. The force that keeps the protons and neutrons bound together in an atomic nucleus and also the force that binds the quarks together to form these two nucleons and other hadrons. The strong nuclear force is about 100x stronger, at an atomic level, than electromagnetism.

Lastly ……

Weak nuclear force.
Weak nuclear force is very short ranged and its bosons (W & Z) primarily do not transmit or mediate a force. Their primary function is to transmutate particles. By exchanging a particle of weak nuclear force (the aforementioned W and Z bosons) electrons go to neutrinos, quarks mix types and a neutron changes into a proton emitting an electron in the process. This last interaction is called Beta Decay, a type of radiation, and is the most commonly used example of the weak nuclear force.
At extremely high energy levels, the weak nuclear force and electromagnetism begin to act the same, and this is called electroweak unification.

Confused ……? Yep, me too. Here are some real world examples that might help.

We have particles that make up matter (stuff like your laptop, the air you’re breathing, the chair you’re sitting on and you yourself) – the protons, neutrons and electrons.

We also have the particles that “cause” (in the loosest sense) forces to work – eg the “photons” of light coming from your screen, the “gluons” present in the nucleus of all matter that prevents its building blocks from flying apart at crazy speeds and the “W and Z bosons” without whose transforming power we would have no radioactivity.

Bang! – thats your bosons done!

Scientist – wow, that’s a big generalization.

I wonder ……?
I love science and a lot of my work is science based but sometimes I have to wonder. I mean how many people get pigeonholed into being just one thing – just one type of scientist?

I have an enquiring mind, restless hands and a distinct lack of funding and time.
And ok ….. so I like a load of different things and my interest does not lie exclusively in one field, but does that make me a worse scientist? I suppose in the strictest possible terms you would have to say yes …… yes it does.
But I still find myself asking …”is this a bad thing?”.

It’s a little like this blog’s namesake. With plenty of variation in its constituents, the good ol’ subatomic soup shares many similarities with a lot of good scientists. Having a background or knowledge in more than one area and not being too tightly focused in ones approach can, in my opinion, lead to a more holistic view when approaching certain problems. This ability to approach a problem from many different angles and be able to “think outside the box”, makes for a better scientist.
One of my biggest faults (and possibly one that is shared by many of us) is that I get bored a little too easily. Herein lies the beauty of the multi-disciplinarian. When my interest wanes in one direction it surely waxes in another.

So ….. will I give up lasers, particles, astro, rockets and other assorted project to focus on just one thing ???
No …. of course not.

Hooray for ecclectica says I !

Faster than light neutrinos or “Einstein – give the guy a break!”

So ….. these faster than light neutrinos are still setting the science world ablaze. Does this really mean we have to consign the most recognisable scientific formula in world ever to the rubbish bin ???

Personally, I think not. Well …… not quite yet anyway.
Although there have been subsequent runs from CERN to Gran Sasso that certainly appear to verify the initial findings of a neutrino stream travelling faster than light, I still think its too early to to give categorical results.
Don’t get me wrong, history is filled with instances of scientific discovery that people at first scoffed at, strongly refuted and resolutely refused to believe, but in this case, the general consensus seems to be that the error margins are currently too high between the point of particle creation and detection to give totally conclusive results.

It will be interesting to see the results of Fermilab’s Minos Plus runs which are due to begin within the next six months to a year.

In the mean time, lets cut old Einstein a little slack. He has, after all, been one of the single most influential figures in the human understanding of the way the universe works.

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