Posted by: mattburleigh | February 22, 2017

TRAPPIST-1: My little contribution

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“An international team of astronomers, including space scientists from the University of Leicester, has found a system of seven Earth-sized planets just 40 light-years away.”

It’s a pretty exciting discovery: using ground and space telescopes, including NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the planets were all detected as they passed in front of their parent star, a small red dwarf star known as TRAPPIST-1, blocking some of the light coming from it. It’s an effect known as a planetary transit.

Seven planets orbiting the ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1

 

 

 

Three of the planets lie in the “habitable zone” of TRAPPIST-1 and could harbour oceans of water on their surfaces, increasing the possibility that the star system could play host to life. Note, that’s “could”. More later.

This system has both the largest number of Earth-sized planets yet found and the largest number of probably rocky worlds in the habitable zone.

 

 

 

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The 1m telescope in Sutherland, South Africa

 

I’m a co-author on the Nature paper detailing this discovery. My small part? Working with one of our PhD students, Alex Chaushev, we observed TRAPPIST-1 in early July of last year using a telescope at the South African Astronomical Observatory in Sutherland, South Africa.

 

 

 

At the time there were thought to be perhaps four planets orbiting the star, and our aim was to observe one of the planets transiting the star.

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By measuring the dip in the star’s brightness during a transit, we can infer the size of the planet. By observing successive transits, we can also constrain the orbit of the planet, and that was the primary aim of our observations.

 

 

 

Puzzlingly, we didn’t see a transit at the expected time. This was actually a vital clue, since it indicated there was more going on in the TRAPPIST-1 solar system than we were previously aware.

Comparison of the sizes of the TRAPPIST-1 planets with Solar SysThanks to a whole programme of observations with different telescopes and the NASA Spitzer satellite over the last few months, we now know that there are at least seven planets in the system, all roughly the size of Earth. The reason we didn’t see our expected transit from South Africa, was because we were confusing different planets with each other, and getting their orbits all wrong.

 

 

 

 

You can learn more, and see some cool graphics, by watching this short video produced by the media people at ESO:

 

 

You can read the paper itself here.

ESO have produced loads of graphics, videos and information sheets here.

And TRAPPIST-1 has its own website too.

Back to the science:

This amused me on Monday evening, after those teasers at NASA announced they were to host a news conference on a discovery beyond the solar system, and whole hyping machine went into over-drive:

 

Of course, it’s not Earth 2.0. And neither is this Something Incredible like, say, the discovery of signs of life would be.

Professional astronomers have grown somewhat weary over the years of yet another announcement of the discovery of “Earth-like planets”, aka Earth 2.0. In many cases, it was pretty obvious immediately that the planet either wasn’t really like Earth at all, or there just wasn’t sufficient evidence to fully support the claim. I’ve criticised previous claims myself, and I’ve seen some pretty cynical tweets and posts in the last couple of days.

Planets which are likely made of rock have also been found before of course, including in their stars’ habitable zones, like the planet around our nearest star, Proxima Centauri b. The excitement with TRAPPIST-1 is the sheer number of rocky planets, with three in the habitable zone.

For TRAPPIST-1, we’ve been careful in the press releases to avoid the term “Earth-like”, because we don’t have enough evidence to claim that.

The main information a transit gives you is the radius (i.e. size) of the planet, and the length of its orbit.

We have been able to glean some information about the masses of the planets from an effect called Transit Timing Variations (TTVs). Each successive transit of a planet should happen at a specific, predictable moment. But because of the presence of the other planets in the system and their gravitational influence, the transits of these planets can happen slightly earlier or later than expected. The difference between the expected time of transit, and when it actually occurs, is related to the masses of the planets.

Artist's illustrations of planets in TRAPPIST-1 system and Solar

This infographic displays some artist’s illustrations of how the seven planets orbiting TRAPPIST-1 might appear — including the possible presence of water oceans — alongside some images of the rocky planets in our Solar System. Information about the size and orbital periods of all the planets is also provided for comparison; the TRAPPIST-1 planets are all approximately Earth-sized.

The graphic above doesn’t give the uncertainties on the masses of the TRAPPIST-1 planets, but if you read the paper you can see from Table 1 that they are quite large. In fact, modelling TTVs is a complex business. More than one set of solutions can fit the data, and we don’t yet have a unique solution for the masses of TRAPPIST-1’s planets. So, there are  still more observations to be made and work to be done. But we can be fairly confident that their masses and densities are in the right ballpark for them to be rocky worlds.

What we cannot say is whether these planets definitely have water on their surfaces, or show evidence for life, or that they harbour alien civilisations. Three of the planets exist in the habitable zone of TRAPPIST-1, where the surface temperature is right for water to exist as a liquid. So they might. But for all sorts of reasons they may be more like Venus, or Mars.

And planets in such close orbits to a red dwarf star like TRAPPIST-1 could suffer all sorts of nasty effects, like deadly flares of charged particles and x-rays from the parent star, that preclude any life developing. We just don’t know, and shouldn’t make outlandish claims without more evidence.

ESO Signs Largest Ever Ground-based Astronomy Contract for E-ELT

The European Extremely Large Telescope, due to begin operations in 2024

In the near future, it should become possible to try to see if some of these planets have atmospheres, using forthcoming telescopes like NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope), due for launch in 2018, and the European Extremely Large Telescope, which has begun construction in Chile.

 

 

 

And so, in summary:

Posted by: mattburleigh | January 21, 2016

A 9th planet?

Just a quick post to summarize my thoughts on the possibility of there being a large, almost Neptune-sized 9th planet in the outer reaches of our solar system. You can read the full story here, and if you are very interested or one of my students then I recommend Mike Brown’s blog. Mike is one of the co-authors of the paper proposing the existence of this planet. His twitter handle is @plutokiller because he’s the man who, in effect, was responsible for demoting Pluto from planet status by finding quite a few bodies around Pluto’s size also lurking in the outer solar system.

Also, if you can’t be bothered with the long read, I did an interview with an Austrian science radio show this morning which you can listen to half-way down this page.

To cut a long story short, this announcement is not a discovery, but a prediction based on the orbital properties of half a dozen small rocky bodies in a region of the outer solar system called the Kuiper Belt. Similarities and co-incidences between the orbits of these “dwarf planets” convinced Mike Brown and his colleague Konstantin Batygin that something large and as yet unseen is tugging at and influencing them. Extensive mathematical modelling suggests a planet about 10 times the mass of Earth could be responsible (so, getting on for the size of Neptune). But it has to be far away, and probably in an elliptical orbit that may only come as close as around 200 times the distance of the Earth from the Sun, and maybe as distant as a 1000 times or more.

Such a planet would be faint (18th-24th magnitude), although still bright enough that it probably would have been detected by one of the large sky surveys undertaken in recent years from ground and space based telescopes. The problem is that it won’t be moving very fast (not even a few arcseconds per year), and since no-one has been looking for it (until now) then it could be lost among millions of stars of similar brightness.

In his blog Mike Brown says that he has now searched for it in some surveys (specifically, for the astronomers reading this, Catalina and Pan-Starrs), but without success. However, the most likely direction that it lies in is co-incident with the plane of our galaxy, i.e. the Milky Way. As anyone who has seen the Milky Way realises, finding something faint and slow moving against a bright fuzzy background of billions of stars will not be easy. Indeed, most sky surveys routinely avoid the Milky Way precisely for that reason.

Of course, the race is now on to find Planet 9. I’m sure lots of astronomers will now pour  over old data and surveys, and be scheduling new observations for the most likely directions to search.

Will we find it? Well, astronomy has been here before. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, discrepancies in the orbits of the known planets convinced mathematicians and astronomers of the existence of more planets, and that’s how Uranus and Neptune were discovered. Later, perceived discrepancies in their orbits were used to predict the existence of a so-called Planet X. Pluto was found because astronomers were looking for Planet X. But Pluto was never massive enough to be that planet, and its discovery was just a remarkable coincidence.

More recently, a large infrared sky survey by NASA’s WISE satellite was used to look for a Jupiter or Saturn sized planet lurking way out at the edge of our solar system, that might be Planet X, but nothing was found. WISE wasn’t sensitive enough to detect this newly predicted Planet 9 though.

If Planet 9 is found, it would be a remarkable discovery and achievement. If it is smaller than Neptune but still several times the mass of Earth then it would be what’s called a “Super-Earth”. Such planets are being found around other stars and are of great interest because we don’t (currently) have anything in our own solar system between the Earth and Neptune in size. What is such a body made of? Is it rocky, or a gas giant?

And if Planet 9 really is wandering so far from the Sun, how did it form and how did it get there?

But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. Observations and data will confirm, or refute, this planet. Right now, astronomers are quite excited because the evidence and modelling seems quite compelling and Mike Brown is a highly respected authority on the outer solar system. But such predictions have been made before, and found wanting. Time will tell.

[For a more skeptical assessment, I like this blog: Not So Fast: Why There Likely Isn’t A Large Planet Beyond Pluto]

 

 

Posted by: mattburleigh | January 9, 2016

Random thoughts from the Cape Town Test

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Hussain, Vaughan, Strauss…. Amla…. 3-1 and counting…..

I reckon I’ve now seen more runs scored live by Hashim Amla than any other opposition Test player. So enough of him, because I can’t remember a single one of his runs. Instead, I’ll treasure Ben Stokes astonishing 250. Watching it was to be in a state of denial. So good, it can’t really be happening. Then there was Jonny Bairstow’s maiden 100 for Dad, Bavuma’s for millions of his countrymen, Faf’s for some young journalist’s forthcoming book of the most forgettable innings of all…… Wait, Faf got a ton?

What a Test. England, so England: the greatest score of over 600 and then shitting ourselves by nearly losing the match in history. But you can read about it elsewhere. Here are my random memories from the stands.

Tickets and seats: I suspect most of us would agree that Newlands is quite possibly the most beautiful international cricket ground in the world, especially now that Adelaide has been spoiled for Aussie Rules.

Tickets for Days 1 and 2 sold out online very quickly, and I could only get them for Days 3 and 4. Fortunately, my friend Diane (@Dewgirl99) managed to arrange some for me. Indeed, it turned out that lots of traveling Brits had spares. I ended up with two, and in the shade, thanks to @PaddyBriggs. And they were cheap, £6-£8 each. Also, once in the ground, the locals seem to be relatively relaxed where you actually end up sitting. It was so hot that people were migrating into the shade at the back of the stands, occupying empty seats. If their owners came back, no problem, just move somewhere else. Later, as people left and the shadows lengthened, we sometimes moved to the boundary edge and a great ground level view that you normally get in club cricket. By Days 4 and 5 the crowd had thinned a bit and I just sat where I wanted the whole day.

Beer: Forget the Castle rubbish. The Mitchell’s Brewery had a mobile bar round the back of the President’s Pavilion, and their Forester’s lager and Boson’s bitter went down very well with the visitors. There’s a strange system where you have to buy tokens first, and then pay with one of them, but I guess that gives someone a job.

The Guerillas: Guerilla cricket is an alternative commentary service that basically consists of some knowledgeable fans sitting in a house somewhere in London watching the cricket on TV and commentating over the internet. Often, the quality of the punditry, and the humour, is light years ahead of some of the “professional” stuff (Messrs. Atherton, Hussain, Lloyd and Holding excepted). Actually, thinking about it, could we please put Shane Warne and his Channel 9 mates in one of those 2D glass prison things in which General Zod and co were banished from Krypton in Superman……

Anyway. Guerilla Cricket has a loyal following of fans on Twitter who talk to each other and join in debates with the commentators during the match. Over the years I’ve met some of these fellow cricket tragics, and it was wonderful to see them in Cape Town and meet more for the first time. So thank you for making my trip so memorable, and looking forward to renewing friendships in far flung venues in the future, to Diane (@DewGirl99), Kate (@DutchBirdKate), Katy Scott (@ithilienorthend)), Hazel (@HackneyHaz), Ian (@Marriotti67), Jason (@jasonghiscox), and Paddy (@PaddyBriggs), and it was good to talk to Cricinfo’s George Dobell again, albeit too briefly!

And thank you to @guerillacricket for bringing us all together!

The stadium “entertainer”: Every morning as I took my seat my ears were left bleeding by the inanity of the bloke paid to “entertain” us before the match started. Generally, this involved him going around the stands interviewing mainly clueless but eternally optimistic South African fans (“Ja, I think we’ll bowl them out for one-fifty and chase it down”). Fortunately, every Brit he engaged with ended up taking the piss in that very dry manner we have, the one which often leaves our colonial friends bemused as to what just happened. Some memorable examples:

Entertainer: “Who have you come here with?”

Brit: “These bastards.”

—–

Entertainer, to an England fan dressed as a dragon: “How do you think this will go today?”

England fan: “No idea mate. I’m a dragon.”

———–

Entertainer, to some Barmies taking part in a cooking competition for the local sponsor: “Do you think you’ll win?”

Barmy: “Doubt it. I’ve never cooked before.”

————–

The Hashim Amlas: Early on Day 2 a large platoon of Saffer fans dressed as Hashim Amla, complete with identical false beards, filled up a section of the North Stand. Almost immediately they tried out a few songs, admittedly not very good ones but slightly better than the 3 tunes the Aussies know. Their side was getting hammered to all parts by Stokes and Bairstow, so their stoical effort to support their team was appreciated by the England fans, who know all about that kind of experience.

Eventually they happened upon the Hashim Amla chant, to that 2 Unlimited melody. In the next section were some Barmies, who recognised the opportunity and joined in chanting Moeen Ali’s name. Soon, the Dueling Beards song was born. And we thought it was hilarious.

Later in the day, when England were fielding, Moeen Ali was stationed right in front of them and the Dueling Beards chant restarted and went on for ages. Some may have found it tedious, but as well as tickling the humour of the 12 year old boy in me, it was a great example of how the vast majority of cricket fans can just sit together, get along and have a laugh without any animosity.

The declaration: You are smashing it to all parts. A session or two more and you could beat 903, The Oval 1938. It’s 3 in the afternoon on the second day. So you declare. Noooooooooo. Get your runs while it’s easy. The Saffers were gone. Even the genius that is De Villiers was dropping catches. You never know what might transpire later in a Test match. And so it proved. That was a declaration by computer statistics. No one has ever lost after scoring 600 etc. But I suspect no-one had ever scored 600 by 3pm on Day 2 either. Still, at least none of the Saffer fans thought they had the remotest chance of winning. Oh, wait.

Flags: There was little problem with hanging the huge collection of flags brought along by England fans. Unlike our grounds, and some Aussie grounds, the fun police don’t seem to exist here. Indeed, the Saffers had a few of their own. Marvelously, their attitude seems to be, “Oh, you’ve got a flag and you support x football club. That’s nice.” I placed the Preston CC (Herts) union jack at square leg / cover point on Days 1 and 2, and you can see it in the TV shot of Jonny Bairstow celebrating his ton.

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The PCC flag enjoying pride of place at square leg

Unfortunately, there was a problem for some flags at the end of the day. Stupidly, I forgot to take mine down before enjoying a post-match pint. When I returned, it was gone. I later learned I wasn’t the only fan whose flag had been pinched (although some seemed to be left up overnight without trouble). Incredibly, the Lost Property office proudly claimed they hadn’t had a single item turned in all match. I wonder why. I’ll comfort myself with the thought that some kid on the Cape Flats will be wrapped up warm in a Preston CC (Herts) flag this winter, but I’m peeved and angry at myself. That flag has been to a few famous matches (MCG & Sydney 98/99, Perth, MCG & Sydney 2010/11). My sincerest apologies to Greig and Fleckers.

Beards: My favourite flag in the ground was the Beard Liberation Front’s, proudly being looked after by @HackneyHaz and @Marriotti67. Of course, Hashim and Moeen take the honours for cricket beards, but Hazel nominated me for Small Beard of the Test, and Keith Flett mentioned it in dispatches…..

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Grace, Marx, Burleigh…

 

 

Bavuma: To be honest, I was so bored and so hot by the time that young Bavuma got his innings going that I went for a futile “wicket walk” and missed most of it. The Saffers were of course ecstatic at his hundred, the first for them by a player from the communities labelled “black” under apartheid (as opposed to “coloured”). It was a very significant moment which I probably didn’t quite appreciate, having by that point decided that the next ton on this pitch would be scored by Sir Geoffrey’s mother with her stick of rhubarb. But as we exited the ground that evening, the black steward on the gate was chanting “Bavuma, Bavuma”. Clearly, it meant a great deal to him.

England fans and Test cricket around the world: Over 85,000 attended the Cape Town Test, the biggest combined crowd in Newlands’ history. There were thought to be about 12,000 from the UK, most of whom went each day (so about half the total attendance were visiting fans). Last January, I was in Cape Town visiting the Observatory when South Africa played the West Indies in the equivalent fixture. I went along to the ground to discover the proverbial 3 men and a dog watching. South African fans generally don’t turn up for Tests, apart from Cape Town when it isn’t a working day and when the opposition aren’t perpetually useless.

In the Springbok Bar after the 5th day of this match ended, a Saffer fan said to us: “That was great. Can we play you every year?” But the ECB don’t appear to like playing South Africa, presumably because there’s no money in it. In the 6 years between the last tour and this one we played just 4 Tests at home in 2012 against the great side of Smith, Kallis, Boucher, Amla, De Villiers, Steyn, Morkel and Philander. Absolutely criminal.

This New Year, across the Indian Ocean, Australia were wiping the floor with the West Indies in complete mismatches of Test fixtures. One evening, over 80,000 decided a Big Bash 20/20 at the MCG was more interesting.  Why they didn’t arrange 5 Tests against the Best New Zealand Side Ever is beyond me, but completely in keeping with the patronising attitude the convicts have always had to Kiwi  cricket (I’ve also seen it suggested that NZ, SA and Aus all want home Boxing Day Tests. If so, someone needs to compromise occasionally). Meanwhile, the Windies are a shambles, their board constantly unable to stem the rot, and the game’s global governing body utterly uninterested in properly aiding them, or indeed protecting, promoting and growing its sport  beyond the Big Three money grabbers (India, England and Oz).

Like many, I worry about Test cricket’s future. If you haven’t seen Death of a Gentleman, the film which exposes the whole charade, please do. You can buy it off Amazon.

But at least there’s the England fans, trooping around the world supporting their team, pumping money into the local economy and boosting Test cricket’s profile wherever they go, while generally contemptuous of their own Board’s role in the slow destruction / failure to promote this sport in some countries. And remember, there’s only 10 that play it at Test level.

“Can we play you every year?…….”

 

 

 

Posted by: mattburleigh | April 9, 2015

When Tories play fast and loose with our national security….

When 80% of the national newspapers are owned by Tory supporters (Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers, Rothermere, etc),  actively pushing a Tory agenda, they can frame each day’s narrative in this General Election. The agenda of TV news, even the “left-wing biased” BBC (my quotes, since it’s a nonsense pushed by Murdoch and his ilk who hate everything about it, not least because it rivals their own business interests) tends to also be influenced by the morning’s newspaper headlines.

Labour did well to dominate a day’s electioneering earlier this week with their popular move to clamp down on tax-dodging non-doms, not that you’d know it was popular with the masses from the following days headlines in, errr, newspapers owned by wealthy Tories etc….. But this morning we were greeted to an extraordinary attack on Ed Miliband and Labour led by Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, which started in his interview on Radio 4 Today and has perpetuated through the day.

In case you missed it, Fallon’s (and Linton Crosby’s of course) attack is two-fold. First, he insists Labour will not be committed to renewing the Trident nuclear deterrent, despite the party’s clear and indisputable insistence that they will indeed do so, and that they will not compromise that position in order to accommodate the SNP in any coalition. Then Fallon argues that Labour cannot be trusted to keep their word because, you know, Ed committed fratricide on his brother to take the Labour leadership in the first place. Fallon might have left out the bit about the Labour party clearly being a hotbed of CND activists, communist sympathisers and bongo playing hippies, but you get the picture.

As the day wore on, we were entertained by David Cameron worrying that Labour haven’t committed to 3 submarines or 4, and therefore were clearly about to invite the Red Army over for tea. Sorry, were “playing fast and loose with our security”.

Which is an interesting angle to take.

Because it’s actually quite clear which political party has done more damage to the armed forces of this country than any other, and which has played fast and loose with our security:

The Tories.

(With their LibDem mates).

Shortly after coming to power in 2010 the ConDem coalition instigated a “Strategic Defence Review” or, as it’s more commonly known, a Complete Shambles.

Among other things, the 2010 SDR saw the scrapping of the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and the withdrawal and sale of the RAF and Fleet Air Arm’s Harrier jump jets. As a result, the UK has no active aircraft carriers until the Queen Elizabeth commissions around 2020. And that will have a pathetic number of F35s on board. Also scrapped were the remaining 1980s generation Type 42 destroyers and Type 22 frigates. The former were on borrowed time, but the latter may still have had a few more years use. Whatever, the point is that the Navy has a significantly reduced surface fleet, and struggles to meet its commitments.

No wonder the Argies are a bit noisier than they used to be, and haggling after some still decent old Russian strike aircraft, more than capable of hitting the Falklands….

And heard the stories of Russian subs and ships sniffing around our coast?

As well as the Harriers, the RAF has lost fast jet bases like Leuchars and Cottesmore, and is steadily reducing its Tornado bomber squadrons. Or was, until ISIS turned up and rather sheepishly and quietly number 12 Squadron has been re-formed only one year after disbanding, to cope with our (small) commitment to trying to keep those fanatics at bay.

The RAF also lost its fleet of Nimrod surveillance aircraft, whose primary role was….. hunting for Russian subs and ships. Now, admittedly the Nimrods were old and their replacement – a modernised version which involved a complete rebuild of each airframe – was so over-budget and behind schedule that the axe, while convenient for the defence budget, was probably the right thing to do. But where is the replacement maritime surveillance aircraft? We’ve had to call on our NATO allies to hunt and watch those subs….

So, “fast and loose with the nation’s security”…..

Of course, you may not have remembered any of this, been aware it ever happened, or certainly not reminded by your average Tory MP or newspaper today. The message is: Labour are bad for defence, while we, the Tory Party, are the Guardians of Britain’s National Security.

Which all the evidence says is complete bollox. It’s only a couple of weeks ago that Cameron and co were busy not committing to the NATO aim of spending 2% of GDP on defence. We all know that if Osborne wants to continue his shrinking of the state in the next few years, defence is the first thing in line for cuts. The Tories did it before, and they’ll do it again.

And yet, your average military type, and the average Tory voter, sincerely believes that the Tories are the Natural Party Of The Armed Forces. Which is extraordinary, given the history of certainly my lifetime.

Remember the Falklands War? Got the Blessed Margaret re-elected, according to legend. But do you remember what happened the year before? When Conservative Defence Secretary John Nott took a swinging axe to the armed forces, especially the Navy, and committed to selling the new aircraft carrier (and future Falklands heroine) HMS Invincible off to Australia? Nah, thought not. But it convinced Galtieri and his Argentine mafia that Britain would not and could not do anything if they invaded.

Fast and loose with our security? Take a bow, the Conservative Party.

Posted by: mattburleigh | February 20, 2015

England, how low can you go?

I can’t remember what time I woke up this morning, but after an early-ish (for me) bed yesterday I fully intended to catch at least the second half of England’s World Cup game against New Zealand. I was too late. England had achieved yet another embarrassing low, to pile on the multitude I’ve been forced to endure over nearly 40 years watching the game. As the morning wore on, this latest humiliation set me thinking: there’s a common thread to these lows. Bare with me, while I recall:

The Abject Lows Of English Cricket During My Lifeime…..

Where shall we start? Being smashed by Lillee and Thomson in ’74/5? Tony Greig’s goad-induced pulverising by the Windies in ’76, the first series I have any vague recollection watching? St Mike Brearly’s lot being thrashed down under by Oz and the Windies in 79/80, as their Packer-banned players returned to duty? No. We may have lost all those series rather humiliatingly, but the opposition were good. There wasn’t really a long-term pattern about it. After all, we won in India in 76/77, won back the Ashes in 77 and were probably the best Test side in the world during the Packer years (77-79).

Perhaps we first have to turn to the ten successive defeats across the two infamous “blackwashes” by the West Indies in 84 and 85/86. It’s true that England were increasing hopeless as defeat piled on defeat. But that Windies side was an outstanding candidate for the best Test team in history. Overall, England weren’t actually a bad side, with a fine collection of batsmen in particular who enjoyed long careers, although they could fairly be accused of a certain lack of professionalism compared to more modern sides. Their performances and alleged behaviour on the preceding 83/84 tour to New Zealand were, well, amateurish… but then again New Zealand had Hadlee at the peak of his powers (they also had the world’s dodgiest umpires, but they didn’t need them, we were that bad). Yet in between those “blackwashes” England went to India in 84/85 and won well, and then thrashed Australia at home in 85. But although I don’t include them on my list, perhaps the “blackwashes” were the start of a descent into the hell of the late ’80s. And so, for my first abject low, I choose:

1) The Parable of Botham’s Joint (summer of 1986)

Ian Botham was my hero. He was a superman who reduced the hardest Australians to gibbering wrecks. He was the darling of the tabloids and the most familiar sportsman in the land. No premier league back then of course, hooliganism was rife, the England football team were hopeless (hmm, poor argument, they still are), and cricket was live on the Beeb all summer. But by 1986 Botham had several problems. Put simply, he was getting fat (well, older), and wasn’t the bowler he was from 77-82. Like Flintoff and Pieterson after him, there was also an unreasonable expectation that he could turn on the heroic taps of 81 on a whim. He couldn’t, of course, and especially against the West Indies. Botham never performed at the same level against them, and given how good they were, that shouldn’t really be a significant black mark on his record. No one else did particularly well either. We hailed Alan Lamb’s hundreds, but they were always for the losing side.

None-the-less, English cricket needed a scapegoat for the “blackwashes”. Heavens, we’d lost 10-0 against a bunch of players who weren’t even allowed to captain their own team until the 1950s, and someone was damn well going to be made an example of. Botham would do fine. After all, the man was clearly getting too big for his boots. He had a flamboyant agent angling after Hollywood acting contracts. He had streaks dyed in his mullet haircut. He was rumoured to have had far too much extra-curricular fun on tour in the Caribbean. He was a tabloid celebrity, and they don’t take kindly to those in the MCC Committee Room, don’t you know. Every time he went out to bat he seemed more interested in slogging sixes into Richie’s confectionary stall, than getting his head down like a true Englishman. It was time to teach the man a lesson.

The opportunity came when he admitted smoking cannabis in a tabloid interview. On cue, the Establishment reacted in horror, closely followed by the English public in one of their periodic bouts of moral superiority. Botham got a two month ban. While he was otherwise engaged, England managed to lose a 3 Test series to India 2-0, in the process taking their losing streak to 7 successive matches, and go 1-0 down to New Zealand in their 8th defeat in 10 Tests.

Teaching Botham a lesson clearly worked, then. All it really did was deny cricket-mad youngsters like me a summer watching our hero, while England plumbed new depths, all to satisfy the snobbish blood-lust of the Establishment and the conservative reactionaries that sadly and disproportionately infest and control English cricket (a theme I shall return to).

Botham, of course, returned at The Oval with a wicket first ball and Lillee’s world record for most Test wickets a few balls later. In November, the second coming of the spirit of ’81 continued as he smashed Merv Hughes and co all over the Gabba for an Ashes-defining hundred. And then that was it, save for an Indian summer at the ’92 World Cup. Sky Sports are currently repeating on loop his one man demolition of Australia at Sydney in that tournament. I guffawed then and you too can still guffaw at his slow-medium half volleys laying waste to the petrified Aussie middle order.

You can see where I’m going with this. For Botham then, read KP now. There’s not much in sport to match English cricket cutting off its nose to spite its face, and then insisting until Hell freezes over that it was right all along, despite all evidence to the contrary.

[You’ll have to wait for my next candidates for Lowest Low Ever, I’ve got work to get back to. But it’s been fun….]

Posted by: mattburleigh | November 30, 2014

What was that noise last night?

The Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail websites (apologies for linking to the latter, I hate it too, but it’s a useful source today), and local newspapers all over the country, are reporting that many people, from the South West of England to Scotland, heard mysterious noises last night (that is, Saturday 29th Nov 2014). Indeed, a a lady in Croyden made a recording. Have a listen. Sounds like fireworks, or a lot of thunder, or gunfire amidst a battle? You may be vaguely disinterested, it’s being reported in the wretched DM after all. But I heard exactly the same sounds. As did several of us who happened to be standing outside the village pub, the Red Lion in Preston, Hertfordshire. I can’t say I noted the time, but most reports seem to suggest it was around 10.30pm, which would fit. I couldn’t say for certain how long it lasted, but at least tens of seconds, maybe longer. We thought it must be fireworks, but could see none. But we live in a hilly and wooded area, so have often heard but not seen fireworks. I wasn’t on twitter at the time, as my phone was out of juice, so wasn’t aware that the same sounds were being heard nationwide. At lunchtime friends from the next village, in the direction we heard the sounds coming from (basically, west), also reported hearing them. They too thought  someone’s having a loud fireworks party. But saw nothing. So what was it?

The Daily Mirror has made a number of suggestions, and there are more from punters on reddit, none of which are satisfactory to me. But as a professional astronomer and scientist, who heard those noises, I guess I ought to be trying to find out.

Clearly it wasn’t fireworks, despite the Met Police telling the good folk of Croyden that’s what it was. Some firework display to be heard by me 50 miles away, let alone the burgers of Aberdeen.

Sonic booms from aircraft? That’s a lot of aircraft. A sonic boom is exactly that. Boom. Not continuous for tens of seconds and longer. And the RAF said they scrambled no jets last night anyway. They have done occasionally recently so it’s not totally daft to expect to hear a sonic boom over England these days, but the Typhoons on Quick Reaction Alert launch alone or in pairs. The RAF doesn’t have dozens flying at once.

Russians? A small Russian naval flotilla passed through the Channel yesterday. But they were not taking potshots at the Surrey mansions of dissident ex-pats. The Mirror and Reddit both carried claims of “Russian airships”. Errr, WTF? No.

An explosion was reported at Catterick barracks in the early hours of the morning. But Catterick is in North Yorkshire. So, no.

Thunder? The Met Office dismisses a meteorological explanation. The weather was quiet last night. Yes, sound could have travelled a long way from a storm, especially if there were the right temperature inversions in the atmosphere. But the Met Office know their stuff. There were no storms around the British Isles last night.

Meteors? The sky was clear last night, although the transparency wasn’t great, so I probably wouldn’t have noticed all but the brightest meteors. The maximum of the only major meteor in November, the Leonids, was on the 17th/18th, and they are finished by the 20th. So, not them. The Geminids don’t start until Dec 6th. Of course, it’s possible for a random, unexpected meteor shower to occur. But meteors explode so high in the atmosphere (~100km) they produce no sound. If a large enough object got into the lower atmosphere before it exploded, someone would have seen it, and maybe heard something. But this noise went on for a long time, not the second or so that a meteor lasts. It would have had to have been a very intense, yet short, meteor shower of large enough objects all getting low enough in the atmosphere. So, no.

A rocket re-entering? Apparently a piece of Russian satellite Kosmos 2251 re-entered last night, but the expert the Mail contacted said the timing was not good for the event heard in the UK. The vast majority of orbiting debris is tracked and its re-entry time and place can be predicted, albeit sometimes with relatively large errors. So, possible I suppose.  But what we heard went on for at least tens of seconds. I don’t know what lots of pieces of re-entering rocket might sound like or how long it would last, but the sheer length of the sounds might make this explanation implausible??

Mass hysteria? Well, of course the trolls of twitter could go to work and convince everyone they’re hearing stuff all over the country when there’s nothing happening there, and I might even be prepared to believe that. Except I heard the sounds myself. And I wasn’t on twitter as my phone was dead. And I’m a profession skeptic – sorry – scientist. And I was with other witnesses. So, no.

UFOs (or at least, visiting aliens) don’t exist so it wasn’t one of them. There are reports going back years of exotic spyplanes developed by the US (see the Aurora project), which might be powered by ramjets. But now I’m getting into conspiracy theory territory.

I guess someone will quickly come up with a mundane explanation, especially on Monday when the journos are all back at work. If not, I’d love to see a proper analysis, if it can be done (using twitter?), of the times people first heard the noise around the country. Does it differ? Is there a pattern, or track which would indicate a moving object? I didn’t notice any fading of the sound or doppler effect, but definitely thought the sound was coming from the west. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the time. Since I thought it was an annoying firework party. Which it wasn’t.

Update 23:11 30/11/14

The Mail are now reporting that the sounds were heard “simultaneously” in New York (let’s go for contemporaneous, speed of sound etc). If true, that means it must have been an event high in the atmosphere. Which points to meteors or rocket re-entry. I contacted the best expert I know, Prof Alan Fitzsimmons at Queens Uni Belfast, to ask what he knew of meteors making audible sounds, here’s his response. I’ll read the paper he recommends in the morning. If a meteor breaking up – and it took tens of seconds at least – am now wondering if this event is actually quite rare and exciting….

Update 12:00 01/12/14

The Daily Fail has now decided it was indeed the Aurora spyplane. I should have added that the Aurora, should it exist, is reportedly powered by a ramjet that might sound like the rhythmic rumblings of saturday evening (& like V1 Doodlebug of WWII).

 

 

 

Posted by: mattburleigh | August 1, 2014

Medical astrology is nonsense

Earlier this week, the University of Leicester website published an Opinion section piece that seemed to endorse the practice of “medical astrology”. This followed comments by Conservative MP David Tredinnick suggesting that astrology has a role in medicine. I was gobsmacked and dismayed, as were my colleagues in the Dept of Physics and Astronomy. Not only is “medical astrology” complete nonsense, with no credible evidence to support it, but it is embarrassing to me that my own University has been associated with it, albeit in an opinion piece. I received several tweets from astronomers and others outside Leicester expressing the verbal equivalent of raised eyebrows, and was aware of other critical comments made online.

I have been on holiday this week playing cricket in the West Country, but fortunately some of my colleagues (Dr Paul Abel, Dr Graham Wynn and Dr Mervyn Roy in particular) have swiftly put together a response which has also been published on the University website. I have co-signed this, along with other colleagues who were able to comment on the draft today. I also re-publish the full piece below.

One argument I would like to add, is to try and ward off the inevitable forthcoming accusation that scientists like myself “do not have open minds” and that science “cannot explain everything about the Universe”.  Firstly, the whole point of the scientific method is to be as open minded as possible about the results of any experiment undertaken. Astrology has been subjected to scientific experiment on numerous occasions, and always found wanting, despite the cherry-picked studies & arguments its advocates like to refer to. There is no mysterious energy associated with the movements of planets and the positions of stars that influences human lives and bodies in the manner advocated by astrology. If there was, astronomers would be very rich and powerful and probably employed by the military in order to weapon-ise it. OK so we were once paid by the Royal Navy (for reasons of navigation at sea), and yes there’s still a US Naval Observatory (still plotting star positions and more), and yes the Vatican funds an Observatory doing world-class research, but astrology is still bunkum. And yes some of the first recognizable scientist/astronomers were sometimes employed as Royal Court astrologers (eg Tycho Brahe) and Isaac Newton practiced alchemy, but they couldn’t be expected to get everything right at a time when maps marked half the world “Here be Dragons”. Astrology is still baloney.

As for science not being able to explain everything about the Universe, I’m not going to get deeply into that. It does a pretty good job, and I’m satisfied that it will continue to do so. We may not yet understand dark matter and dark energy, but science will get us there, and astrology is still completely bogus.

Finally,  to point out that astrology is utter bovine manure is not, as David Tredinnick claims of his critics, “bullying”. Neither is it slavishly conforming to some scientific establishment viewpoint, patriarchal, “Western”, or whatever other label you want to throw at it. Astrology doesn’t work. It is balderdash, poppycock, blarney, guff and twaddle. It has been discredited on numerous occasions. It doesn’t exist. It should be a dead pseudoscience, but sadly we have to keep pointing this out.


Academics from the Department of Physics and Astronomy say “ideas behind astrology are fundamentally wrong”

We are dismayed to read views expressed by Dr Elizabeth Hurren that seem to endorse the practice of medical astrology.  It is disappointing to find an article supporting the use of astrological charts by the NHS expressed by an academic in an Opinion section of the University of Leicester, an institution with a long and successful history of research in astrophysics and space science.

While this article was presented as academic opinion, no evidence was presented in support of statements concerning the application of astrology. This is because the ideas behind astrology are fundamentally wrong. Many of the claims made in the article ignore and are falsified by a wealth of astronomical data, some of which was gathered by instruments designed, built and operated just a short distance across campus from the author’s office.

If we consider the opening sentence: ‘the history of the body has always been a star map.’ This is presented as a statement of fact, but makes no tangible sense. What does it mean? Is the author alluding to evolutionary history, the history of anatomy? In either case the association with star maps is spurious. A star map is a two dimensional projection of a three dimensional reality. It is simply the position of the stars as viewed from Earth at a given point in time. The only association with the history of the body can be the historical use of discredited superstitious medical practices. Vague and ill-defined statements pervade the article and, like a horoscope, we suspect the hope is the reader will find their own meaning in it.

Astrologers believe that the position of the sun, moon and planets as they pass through constellations have an influence on our lives. However, the constellations are just the pictures imagined by our hunter-gatherer ancestors among the crowded majesty of the night sky. While fascinating in their own right, these pictures have no scientific meaning. Stars are vast spheres of gas, nuclear furnaces burning hydrogen and enriching the Universe with heavier elements. They are arranged in galaxies, great structures containing hundreds of billions of stars, and in turn, there are many billions of galaxies.  Stars orbit within galaxies, continually moving through space, and so the constellations change over thousands of years: they are transient things. Astrology is ignorant of all of this.

Beneath the veneer of pseudo science the article suggests that medical practice would benefit from a more patient-centric approach. This point may well have merit, but this has nothing to do with astrology.  The suggestion that the personal circumstances of patients be taken into account is worthy, but it has nothing to do with astrology.  Of the points of note in the article, none have anything to do with astrology. Astrology has not cured any of the world’s diseases or led to any proven medical practices. The reason astrology is not taken seriously is clear and simple: there is absolutely no evidence to support any of its claims.

The article demonstrated a disregard for the scientific method and general scholarly practice.  We find it embarrassing to have to respond to such an article in the 21st century. As scientists, we welcome and embrace scholarly debate and understand the context of such debate. We have no strong objection to the relatively harmless horoscope sections of many national newspapers, but when superstition and misinformation masquerade as science then we must object. We think that the suggestion that astrology has any place in modern medical practice is dangerous and without scientific merit. In our view, the publication of this article has done a disservice to our University’s name.

Dr Paul G Abel, Centre for Interdisciplinary Science, University of Leicester

Dr Graham Wynn, Dr Mervyn Roy, Prof Ken Pounds, Prof Andrew King, Prof Steve Milan, Prof Paul O’Brien, Prof Nial Tanvir, Dr Jonathan Nichols, Dr Sarah Casewell, Dr. Matt Burleigh, Dr Mark Wilkinson, Dr Richard Alexander, Dr Steve Baker, Dr Simon Vaughan, Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leicester.

Posted by: mattburleigh | July 25, 2014

Dave Allen – a personal tribute

Late yesterday afternoon I phoned a friend in the cricket club on some trivial matter and found him in distress. He’d just been informed that one of our teammates had collapsed while playing for the Hertfordshire Over 50s side. I called their captain, and was told the situation wasn’t good. A short while later, another call gave me the bad news. Dave Allen had died. He was just 49.

Dave joined Preston Cricket Club in 2007. Previously, he had played for many years for Ickleford Cricketers, and when they sadly folded he elected to make the “Field of Dreams” – and the Red Lion – his home ground. Of course, having played against Dave many times, we were delighted he chose us. Dave was a feisty, combative, highly competitive and skilled medium-pace bowler. Until the last couple of seasons he was the regular opening bowler for the Saturday 2nd XI in the Saracens Hertfordshire Cricket League, and for many seasons also a regular for the Sunday 1st XI in the Chess Valley league. Latterly, he had dropped down to the Saturday 3rd XI and Sunday 2nds, and found himself once again playing regularly at the Cricketers’ old home at Hitchin Boys School. Statistics are dry and ours are very incomplete for recent years, but in 2007 he took 78 wickets, 2008 at least 62, and 2009 72 wickets. Last year, he took 42 league wickets in 16 3rd XI games at an average of just 14. His best figures, 7 for 41, came in 2008 for the Saturday 2nd XI at Southgate Compton on one of the few occasions we beat those arch rivals at their notorious ground.

Dave Allen bowls for Preston 2nds v Totteridge 2nds in 2007 at the Field of Dreams

Dave Allen bowls for Preston 2nds v Totteridge 2nds in 2007

Dave was an extraordinarily dedicated cricketer. He played almost every  Saturday and Sunday of the season, midweek too if he could, and would even come back early from his annual holiday to play.  He loved to bowl, and bowl, and bowl….. woe betide the captain who tried to take him off. Dave always believed a wicket was just around the corner, that he had the batsman’s measure and needed just one more over to prove it. His nickname, “Mad Dog”, was bestowed in his Cricketers days, and was well earned. Unafraid to speak his mind to his own captain or players, he was also not unknown to engage with an opponent if he felt cheated of an edged catch or lbw. But no matter how frustrated he might have been at the end of a game, brashly announcing that he might take the next weekend off, you knew he wouldn’t. He was always back, trying his heart out. And we loved him for it. “Top Dogging!” we’d cry from the slips as another leg cutter slipped past the outside edge, before disintegrating into fits of giggles.

Until he dropped down to the Saturday 3rds, I played virtually every match (Sat 2s, Sun 1s and now Sun 2s) with Dave. At times, in 2007 and 2008, it seemed as if the two of us were carrying the 2nd XI, me with the bat and Dave with the ball. Some seasons or games I was Dave’s captain, and can vouch for the difficulty and the courage needed to tell him it was time to let someone else bowl. Dave could also display little interest in fielding, and would wander around at fine leg if you didn’t keep a beady eye on him. But then he would take a sharp catch from nowhere. Only two weeks ago he snaffled a hard drive at short cover for the Sunday 2s at Boxmoor, and grabbed a slip catch against Hoddesdon 3s off Finlay Connah. Like any good tail ender, Dave loved to have a bash with the bat. Sometimes this would be utterly inappropriate, the concept of batting for a draw seeming to not register. On other occasions his swashbuckling would add vital runs at the end of an innings and dishearten the opposition (eg Flamstead 2012). In the recent Boxmoor game I just mentioned he came in at number 11 and was having great fun until yours truly at the other end chipped up a catch to spoil things.

When you play club cricket, you find yourself in the company of the same people for anywhere from 7 to 12 hours, depending on how early the departure for an away game or how late the celebrations in the Red Lion. Inevitably, then, you get to know your teammates and make strong friendships. Dave was a great friend and companion to many of us.  I have spent countless hours walking around the boundary, sitting in the dressing room or at a table in the Lion discussing cricket, more cricket, and other things, including sharing our troubles and hopes, jokes and anecdotes. In particular, it was always reassuring to bat when he was umpiring. Not only was Dave a strong, knowledgable, fair and trustworthy umpire (and he loved to do it), but he knew my batting, and often a quiet word at the non-strikers end would help to settle my nerves, or point out a technical issue I might be having.

Perhaps appropriately, my last memory of Dave will be the catch I dropped at first slip off him on Sunday. Typically, he quickly turned on his heels and marched stiffly back to his mark, visibly suppressing the “Mad Dog” within.

Now, just like that, he’s gone.  And I will miss him terribly.

Dave Allen bowls for Preston 2nds v Totteridge 2nds at the Field of Dreams in 2007

Happy times at the Field of Dreams: Dave Allen bowls for Preston 2nds v Totteridge 2nds in 2007

Posted by: mattburleigh | July 23, 2014

Preston v Leicestershire 1989

Back in the olden days county cricket sides used to visit small village and town clubs to raise money for long serving players’ “benefits”. Essentially this is/was a form of severance payment, with tax advantages, raised from fans and the public through a series of fund-raising events such as matches against star-struck clubs. Hopefully, the clubs would also be able to make a profit for their own benefit. In 1989 we hosted Leicestershire, including stars like David Gower, Peter Willey and Chris Lewis, for the benefit I think of their distinguished batsman Nigel Briers of long serving bowler Les Taylor (Briers was the following year, when it rained all day – thanks Steve Parker for the correction). The whole shebang was arranged by Bob Eagles, one of first XI players at the time and a leading local businessman. Unfortunately the day was grey and overcast. We got a game in, but if memory serves me correct we didnt make a profit. I wasn’t selected, much to my disappointment, but I took a few photos which I’ve scanned for posterity. Gower took his innings seriously. He used the opportunity as a “net” since the 1989 Ashes started shortly after. He made something like 70 before hoisting a deliberate catch to Preston veteran Chris Newell at long on. Sadly for Gower, the 1989 Ashes proved to be a total disaster as a resurgent Australia took a complacent England to the cleaners and began a 16 year reign of domination over us. Gower lost the captaincy mid-series. A few parallels with today’s England side?

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Gower batting

Gower batting

Spectators. Where the modern pavilion is.

Spectators. Where the modern pavilion is.

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Gower batting

Gower batting

Posted by: mattburleigh | July 22, 2014

Trip down memory lane – Preston 1st XI 1988

I’ve been going through the many packets of photos I took as a teenager. There’s a lot of planes landing at Luton, which is very boring if you don’t like planes but most are of airlines, airliners and colour schemes that no longer exist. I also took a lot of boring pictures of things: ruined castles, old buildings, and a lot of out of focus crap. A few of the family and friends that I’ll get round to scanning and posting one day.

I also found some of Preston Cricket Club batting at the Recreation Ground (now known affectionately as the “Field of Dreams”). These were taken in the summer of 1988, when I was 16, and this would I think have been my second season with the club. This is either the Saturday or Sunday 1st XI, I can’t be sure, and neither do I have any record of the opposition. But I was already playing 1st XI sometimes at that age (as a bowler; I couldn’t hit it off the square!). I suppose it’s a little poignant. None of these gentlemen play at the club today. Chris Hollis (who may have been captain) lives in Australia. I think Terry Tillyer still lives in Hitchin. Marcus Baines carried on the longest, playing his last game about 9 years ago. I opened the batting for many years for the 2nd XI with Marcus, and learned a lot about the game from him.

I now live in Spindle Cottage that you can see in one of the photos. That wall could do with a paint today! Note also the lack of trees along the roadside compared to today.

 

Mike Cashin slogging to leg

Mike Cashin slogging to leg

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Chris Hollis driving

Chris Day cutting

Chris Day cutting

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Terry Tillyer driving

Marcus Baines defends in his own style

Marcus Baines defends in his own style

Bainesy: "One run!"

Bainesy: “One run!”

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