A Wee Announcement

You’ve no doubt noticed that things have been very quiet on the blog this year, and my activity even on other blogs like Research the Headlines has also been a bit less than usual.

There’s a very good reason, which I’ve been keeping under wraps for a while.  All of my writing time is being taken up by an exciting new project. In November 2017 I will be delivering the first draft of a textbook to Cambridge University Press, as part of its Astrobiology series.

The book will focus on Fermi’s Paradox, and how the different parts of academia integrate into the search for intelligent life. It’s been really great fun writing this book so far, and a tremendous challenge too. I’m about halfway through, and I’ll be going full tilt into 2017 to get the first draft ready to go in time.

I’ll do my best to keep telling you about my latest publications, but if I’m quiet, it’s because I’m working on something pretty huge. Hopefully this time next year I’ll be able to tweet a picture of the finished manuscript.

Until my next post – Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year!


I doubt there are alien spacecraft in the outer Solar system

You might have seen a fairly overblown article in the Daily Express about some things I said at the British Science Festival in Bradford (Thanks to @BritishSciFest for tweeting the above pic).  This article is probably one I would have addressed at Research the Headlines, but I thought I would put it here on my personal blog so things were clear.

The article seems to imply I’m convinced that there are alien spacecraft lurking in the Outer Solar System.  I’m not – in my opinion, the odds on that are extremely small.  However, we still need to map out the Kuiper belt and the other asteroid regions to rule it out rigorously using the scientific method.

This in fact was the thrust of my argument.  I’m of the opinion that the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) is likely to fail, but the process of failing will tell us something important about the human condition, and give hints at the ultimate fate of our civilisation.  What’s more, we’re already getting data from other astronomical surveys which would help, as I’ve blogged about before.

Amusingly, the Express article states:

There are some astronomers who are convinced there is no other intelligent life within a close enough distance that will ever allow us to make contact

I would include myself in the above “some astronomers”! The football pitch description isn’t quite right either.  The blue part in the penalty box is a crude representation of how many stars the $100m Breakthrough Listen programme will eventually look at, using a small range of radio and optical frequencies.  The little orange box in the top left corner post is an approximate estimate of the number of stars we’ve looked at previously.

The Express article cherry-picked some images of my slides to back up their bombastic statements – you can see the whole lot here.  Note my subtitle is “A Pessimist’s Plea for SETI”.  Also note that I was never approached for comments directly, despite giving out an email and Twitter handle.  Finally, as was pointed out by a colleague:

It’s a shame that these mistakes were made – other aspects of the article are quite reasonable.  I guess it would help matters if I blogged here more often, and I will try to do that (look out for a piece on our latest ideas about searching for dead civilisations).

In the meantime, a pinch of salt is always a good idea…

Making Sweet Planetary Music at NAM Hack Day 2014

I’ve been in Portsmouth this week at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting.  The weather has been extremely pleasant – bagged lunches on the steps of the Guildhall were very pleasant, as Bob Nichol notes:

I gave a quick 8 minute talk in the “IMF: Facts and Myths” session on the properties of brown dwarfs – those awkward objects that are too small to be stars, but too big to be planets.  These in-betweeners turn out to be a very sensitive probe of planet formation theories, and observing the mass distribution of brown dwarfs should tell us whether they are more starlike than planetlike (more on that in a future post).

Alongside my usual conference activities, I took part in the first ever NAM hack dayHack days are an opportunity for programmers and like-minded people to spend a day creating something useful or fun from scratch.  “Hack” is the operative word here – throwing together something in a few hours is never that polished 🙂

My effort was inspired by Pythagoras’ musica universalis, or “music of the spheres”.  Pythagoras, and others like him, were convinced that there was a deep relationship between mathematical concepts and music.  Music theory depends heavily on mathematics, but Pythagoras believed that mathematics itself was inherently musical, and that the Universe moved to a deeply beautiful set of rhythms and harmonies.  For example, he believed the motions of the planets produced a music that, if humans could hear it, they would not only consider it beautiful, but discover a deeper understanding of how the Universe worked.

So, I thought about the music in planetary systems.  We have the benefit of knowing many more planets than Pythagoras did, orbiting stars other than our Sun.  Even for a musical dunce like myself, it’s easy to create musical notes from the properties of planets.  And that’s exactly what I did for my hack: I took exoplanet data from the Open Exoplanet Catalogue, and made repeating notes for each planet.  The period of the planet’s orbit dictates how frequently a note is played.  If a planet orbits its star once a year, then its note will play once per second.  The pitch of the note is determined by the planet’s size – small planets play a high pitched tone, and large planets play a low pitched tone.

So here’s what the Solar System sounds like as a song (headphones recommended for the full bass experience):

The inner planets orbit the Sun quickly, and make a series of high pitched ringing sounds, with the giant planets beating out a slow, ponderous bass line.

The code I wrote to make this music is open-source on Github – you can find it here.  It’s written in Python, and has a reasonable user interface (remember it’s a work in progress!).  Happy music making!