I am famous for having no vices, just the odd endearing habit. But on the second Friday of the month, between October and May, it would be rare not to find me at Burlington House in London for a quick fix. Not of art, although the building is best-known as the home of the Royal Academy, but of science. For that is the time, laid down by John Herschel, Charles Babbage and the other founding fathers, for the Royal Astronomical Society to meet. Between May and October, of course, a gentleman would not be in town.
Take last Friday’s meeting as a quick example of these events’ compulsive nature. First, a solemn silence in memory of UK astronomy’s biggest bigwig, Sir Bernard Lovell, who had died over the summer, aged 98.
Then onwards to hear about the future Euclid space mission from Thomas Kitching of the Royal Observatory Edinburgh. This telescope will generate over 10 Petabytes of information (look it up). It has been sold to the funders as the machine that will tell us what dark matter is, by looking at the distortion it causes in the apparent shapes of galaxies. But it will increase by 10-1000-fold our knowledge of everything else in the cosmos beyond our own galaxy. For example,
we now know a few anomalously massive galaxies. Euclid will show us a few thousand. It’s well-known in astronomy and other sciences that instruments drive discoveries, and we have no idea just yet what this flow of data will tell us.
By contrast, we already know that the work of the Juliet Briggs and colleagues at Bristol is likely to save lives, because she is involved in the RAS’s other interest besides the sky
the Earth as a planet. (The Geological Society looks after the shallower crusty stuff.) She has been using satellite radar reflections from earthquake-affected regions of East Africa to delineate the shape of the movement caused by the quaking. So far so good. This tells us about the gradual opening of the East
African Rift Valley, now moving apart as the Atlantic did 65 million years ago. But in addition, her work has led to routine monitoring of many active and in some cases dangerous volcanoes that were previously left to their own devices until disaster struck.
And then, just to prove that our knowledge of the universe really is getting very satisfying, along came Gerald Roberts of Birkbeck College in London, a geologist whose idea of fun is gawping at massive rocks which have rolled across the landscape by earthquake action. In the
past, earthquakes would indeed have been the limit of his ambition. Now he has gone interplanetary, as images from the HiRise camera in orbit round Mars (on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) show similar rolled rocks. Their abundance tells us about Martian seismic activity, which is fun because until recently, everyone “knew” that Mars was too cooled-down for any quaking to be current. The fresh rock falls and tracks we see now tell a new story.
No time to tell you what the Martin Barstow told us about white dwarfs. Dwarves? But he should certainly get lots of money
this have plan.
to look at them even more closely.
Damn, I shall miss the November do as I shall be at a solar eclipse in Australia. Boo hoo.