HDR and Reality

The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank
A com­ment on this link HDR: Love it or or Leave it? pos­ted by +Matt Shalvatis.
The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank

The Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank

This has been on my ‘to-blog-about’ list for years. On the one side there’s the artistic effect, which you can debate. I get the impres­sion HDR is a per­sonal taste, so telling people it’s the right or wrong way seems point­less to me. In my view my early HDR stuff was poor. In par­tic­u­lar it was often over-saturated so I could see what was hap­pen­ing (I have odd col­our vis­ion). These days if I can can do some­thing I want without HDR I will, and I find adjust­ing the white and black points is often enough for what I want, but when it isn’t a light touch in Photomatix can make a big and subtle difference

The other side is that it can have prac­tical uses in some­thing like archae­ology. I have seen too many pho­tos of pitch-black church interi­ors. HDR can provide a much bet­ter impres­sion of what the human eye sees than the lim­ited dynamic range of a cam­era because you can expose the shot for a wider range of light and shadow. The altern­at­ive is to bring a massive light­ing rig along with you, and that’s not practical.

I know some people think this is bad because it’s manip­u­lat­ing the pho­to­graph and there­fore not a ‘true record’. They’re right it isn’t ‘true’. But the auto func­tion on a cam­era isn’t neut­ral. It makes its own judge­ments on what the set­tings should be. The dif­fer­ence is that these set­tings are often hid­den from the user when they’re made, so it’s harder to see what assump­tions are being built in. Just because you can’t see the manip­u­la­tion of set­tings hap­pen­ing doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

I don’t ever see the same angst about real­ity in archae­olo­gical illus­tra­tion though. I think a lot of archae­olo­gists will laugh if you say the cam­era never lies, but I think there’s a bias to believ­ing that cam­eras can be neut­ral. Maybe with pho­tos look­ing so much closer to real­ity we sub­con­sciously insist devi­ations from real­ity are flaws not art.

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.

Can you preserve sites on the Moon?

Boot print in the lunar regolith

This might sound like it’s either mad, who’s going to dam­age sites on the moon? or bleed­ing obvi­ous, if we could still see Columbus’s first foot­print on Hispaniola we’d pre­serve it, right?

Boot print in the lunar regolith

Boot print in the lunar rego­lith. Photo: NASA / Buzz Aldrin

As the NYT points out, the Google X Prize is aimed at mak­ing the Moon more access­ible and that will have knock-on effects when it comes to pre­serving his­toric sites on the lunar sur­face. No-one’s going to inten­tional dam­age Neil Armstrong’s foot­print are they? Well once tour­ists arrive it’s inev­it­able I think. There’s some hom­inin foot­prints at Laetoli. They’re among the earli­est foot­prints of our human-like ancest­ors. And they’re now pro­tec­ted because of dam­age. Tourists couldn’t res­ist put­ting their foot into the foot­print to compare.

Listing the Moon land­ings as her­it­age sites might seem obvi­ous, but it’s also cur­rently impossible. You can only list sites on your ter­rit­ory. Through vari­ous treat­ies the Moon (and Antarctica) aren’t recog­nised as national ter­rit­or­ies, so they can’t have her­it­age list­ings. The USA can claim own­er­ship of any­thing they’ve left on the moon, but not of the dust on its surface.

So long as humans can’t get back to the moon it might still look like navel-gazing, but one of the things that’s mak­ing space archae­ology an inter­est­ing field is that a few archae­olo­gists are now look­ing back at how unpro­tec­ted key sites from the space race are on Earth. KSC, Kourou and Baikonur are all still in use, but Woomera is no longer used by the British. The Australian gov­ern­ment has used it as site for hold­ing immigrants.

Once you start look­ing at earth­side sites things get messier because they have human con­sequences. Alice Gorman has noted Peenemünde is a key site in the devel­op­ment of rock­etry, but list­ing it as a her­it­age site can’t be done without think­ing about deaths among the Jewish work­ers there, or those killed at the British tar­gets. She’s also poin­ted out that some other sites chosen because they were remote and no one lived there, turned out to have indi­gen­ous peoples who thought their homes were very local to where they lived.

For more on Space Archaeology
Beth O’Leary has a site on Lunar Legacies at http://​space​grant​.nmsu​.edu/​l​u​n​a​r​l​e​g​a​c​i​es/
Alice Gorman has a web­log Space Age Archaeology at http://​zohar​esque​.blog​spot​.com/
and there’s a Space Archaeology Wiki at http://​www​.spacear​chae​ology​.org/​w​i​ki/

A post that ori­gin­ally appeared on Google+.

Psychic Readings are True

Psychic advert

Yes, it’s a delib­er­ately sceptic-baiting title. The plan is: it winds people up, they point out how I’m wrong and I learn something.

Psychic advert

I fore­see you are about to lose some money. Photo by Timothy Krause.

I’ve not com­pletely mad though. Obviously not all psychic read­ings are true. It would take an enorm­ous tal­ent to ignore real­ity that has shown many read­ings to be false or fraud­u­lent. If I could do that I’d have a golden future in polit­ics. No, I’m only arguing the true ones are true.

Even that sounds odd. By defin­i­tion the true read­ings are true. Isn’t it a bit dif­fi­cult to believe that any read­ings are true if, like me, you don’t believe in psychic powers? Surely that’s going to need a weaselly approach to ‘truth’? I prefer to say simple, but you can call weasel in the com­ment box below if you like.

The idea has been form­ing since I went on an Applied Cold Reading course. Applied Cold Reading works best if you can get things wrong, but some­times it hap­pens that you fail to get things wrong.* String a few of these fails together and your sub­ject is stunned by how much you got right. Now you and I know that we were aim­ing for misses, but to your sub­ject that doesn’t mat­ter. You were right. That’s what she knows. The fact that you were right by acci­dent or chance is irrel­ev­ant. You were right.

And now you’re in trouble because she’ll expect you to keep being right. But that’s your prob­lem.
Continue read­ing

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming by Mike Brown


I’ve known about this book for a while, but the title put me off read­ing it. It sounds too smug to me, and while there are reas­ons for reclas­si­fy­ing Pluto I don’t think it’s some­thing astro­nomers could be smug about. Planet was not a term inven­ted by astro­nomers, it came from pop­u­lar cul­ture in the ancient world. I’m also wary of how use­ful a rigid defin­i­tion of planet is. The ter­restrial plan­ets are clearly not like the Gas Giants, and per­haps you could even dis­tin­guish between Gas Giants and Ice Giants. The defin­i­tion for dwarf planet is ter­rible, and how can a dwarf planet not be a planet. Finally Mike Brown dis­covered Xena, which he argued could be the tenth planet, but I can recall there were a rash of plan­ets dis­covered. Wasn’t Sedna sup­posed to be big­ger than Pluto too? Then there was Eris and Dynomia too. So I wasn’t expect­ing to read much bey­ond the first chapter.

So first up, I still think it’s a bad title. Not because it’s smug, but because the book is the oppos­ite. It’s warm, endear­ing and very human. The author is also extremely well-placed to write the book because there was indeed a rash of plan­ets dis­covered, and he was the guy who assembled the team respons­ible for them, includ­ing Quaoar, Sedna, Xena and the moon Gabrielle which are now offi­cially named Eris and Dysnomia. Basically if it’s a dis­tant body in the solar sys­tem that I’ve heard of, it’s likely that Mike Brown dis­covered it.

This could have so eas­ily been a book purely about number-crunching, pro­gram­ming and extremely faint dots on pho­to­graphic slides. He’s also included a lot about his fam­ily life, espe­cially the birth of his daugh­ter. A quick skim of the reviews on Amazon show that some people hate this. They have an opin­ion that Science is pure logic devoid of emo­tion. I blame Spock. In con­trast I think it’s very import­ant. It shows how sci­ence is a human activ­ity. The removal of Pluto from the plan­ets wasn’t done in isol­a­tion, it was part of a very human desire to explore.

The import­ance of humanity’s rela­tion­ship to plan­ets comes through very early. More or less straight away he points out that people recog­nised plan­ets long before they had pro­fes­sional astro­nomers. He also notices that there’s very little evid­ence of plan­et­shock the first time a planet was dis­covered since ancient times. If you’d asked me before I read this book I would have said it was Uranus that was the first planet dis­covered since antiquity in 1781. I would have been wrong.

Though plan­ets were so deeply embed­ded into many aspects of every­day life, there is no record­ing of the pub­lic reac­tion to the first and most sig­ni­fic­ant shock to the word planet. In the six­teenth cen­tury the idea began to spread that the sun, rather than the earth, was at the cen­ter of the uni­verse and that the earth and the plan­ets revolved around it. Suddenly, the wan­der­ers were in dis­ar­ray. Instead of the sun and the moon and the other plan­ets revolving around the earth, five of them (the plan­ets) went around one of them (the sun), while the sev­enth (the moon) went around the earth. The earth, like five of the wan­der­ers, also went around the sun.

Once you have a helio­centric sys­tem Earth has to be a planet. I’m kick­ing myself for not real­ising that. With hind­sight it’s obvi­ous, though you can see why the dis­cov­ery of Earth as a planet wasn’t a big trauma in itself. He also tackles the minor plan­ets like Ceres and Pallas and their quiet demo­tion into asteroids.

None of this is done with a sense of “how stu­pid people were for not know­ing this”. Instead I get a sense that Mike Brown believes that people were using the word planet in a way that was use­ful to them at the time. Likewise with more recent astro­nomers he’s happy to give credit to their work. Where he has been able to go fur­ther he’s acknow­ledged that he has had the bene­fit of liv­ing at a time with tech­niques like com­puter ana­lysis that weren’t avail­able to earlier astro­nomers. At one point he argues that Clyde Tombaugh could have seen Eris, were it not for Eris being at the far point of its orbit.

He also tackles the con­tro­versy over the dis­cov­ery of Haumea. At the time I got the vague impres­sion that a slow team of astro­nomers had missed a planet in their data and, when it was pub­licly released, another team ana­lysed the data and found it. Neither side of the dis­pute claim that’s what happened, so I was utterly wrong there. Mike Brown explains why he delayed announ­cing the dis­cov­ery of Haumea. At the top of the post I said Sedna was big­ger than Pluto. It isn’t. Its much more shiny, and that’s why it was thought to be big­ger. Mike Brown’s team were tak­ing nine months from dis­cov­ery to pub­lic­a­tion and it was when the code­name for the planet was released that it was dis­cov­er­able in a Google search on some tele­scope logs. This also explains why Xena was rush announced and partly my con­fu­sion over exactly what was and was not discovered.

The book closes with the vote in Prague to say there are eight plan­ets in the solar sys­tem. From what I heard of the meet­ing the event was chaotic, so he does an excel­lent job find­ing a nar­rat­ive to fol­low. It also explains the awful ‘dwarf planet’ term. The first vote was to demote Pluto to a ‘dwarf planet’ which is not a planet. It makes no sense until he then says there was an amend­ment to call the 8 plan­ets ‘clas­sical plan­ets’, which is another awful term. If that second vote had passed then Pluto would have been smuggled back as a planet. So the reason we have ‘dwarf plan­ets’ that are not plan­ets is a botched job at a compromise.

He also argues that the defin­i­tion of a planet itself doesn’t mat­ter that much. The defin­i­tion, he argues, isn’t about what is a planet, more an explan­a­tion of why Pluto isn’t a planet — even if it’s a bad explan­a­tion. Instead he argues that con­cepts are more import­ant rather than defin­i­tions that wan­nabe law­yers can wrestle with.

The lan­guage is access­ible. You’re not going to be able to dis­cover your own planet after read­ing this book, but you’ll have a bet­ter impres­sion of what life is like when research­ing. For example there’s this:

Looking at vastly more sky than any­one else had ever looked at for large objects out in the Kuiper belt was so immensely excit­ing that I could hardly con­tain myself. I knew that there would be big dis­cov­er­ies, and hav­ing new pic­tures come in night after night after night with only a break for the full moon kept everything at a con­stant peak. I talked to my friends about new plan­ets. I thought about names for new plan­ets. I gave lec­tures about the pos­sib­il­ity of new plan­ets. I did everything I could, except find new planets.

I think that fail­ure to make any pro­gress on what you’re sure is an excit­ing pro­ject is famil­iar to most researchers.

With the IAU’s poor hand­ling of Pluto, it’s easy to see how this could have been a dread­ful book. I still think the title is going to put a lot of people off. Is it really going to appeal to Plutophiles? That’s a shame because inside the cov­ers is one of the most like­able books I’ve read for a long while. It’s def­in­itely worth a read when the paper­back comes out.

You can read some of the book in excerpts at Mike Brown’s blog.

Can only a secular society appreciate the Words of God?

The Bible
The Bible

The Bible. Photo by Patrick Feller.

There’s a ker­fuffle over a new trans­la­tion of the Bible into Jamaican Patois that has helped throw what both­ers me about the British Prime Minister, David Cameron’s, embrace of Christian val­ues into sharp relief.

David Cameron has recently given a speech cel­eb­rat­ing the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Some of this I like. For example:

…[T]he King James Bible has bequeathed a body of lan­guage that per­meates every aspect of our cul­ture and her­it­age from every­day phrases to our greatest works of lit­er­at­ure, music and art. We live and breathe the lan­guage of the King James Bible, some­times without even real­ising it.

It depends on how pedantic you want to be about this to say how true it is. There’s evid­ence that some com­mon phrases attrib­uted to the KJV are much older in some vari­ants. Likewise I was going to give The spirit is will­ing, but the flesh is weak Matthew 26:41 and Mark 14:38 as an example of some­thing very bib­lical that often appears in sec­u­lar speech, but if you fol­low those links you’ll see I’ve mod­ern­ised it a bit. For example in Mark the phrase is actu­ally: The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.. Now you’d have to be an utter cur­mudgeon to deny that the King James Bible pop­ular­ised the phrase, but equally trans­la­tions move on because lan­guages move on.

David Cameron picks another evoc­at­ive phrase:

One of my favour­ites is the line “For now we see through a glass, darkly.” It is a bril­liant sum­ma­tion of the pro­found sense that there is more to life, that we are imper­fect, that we get things wrong, that we should strive to see bey­ond our own per­spect­ive. The key word is darkly – pro­foundly loaded, with many shades of mean­ing. I feel the power is lost in some more lit­eral translations.

The New International Version says: “Now we see but a poor reflec­tion as in a mirror”

The Good News Bible: “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror”

They feel not just a bit less spe­cial but dry and cold, and don’t quite have the same magic and meaning.

The cri­ti­cism of the Jamaican Bible is per­haps the oppos­ite. Bishop Alvin Bailey, at the Portmore Holiness Church of God near Kingston, says: “I don’t think the Patois words can effect­ively com­mu­nic­ate what the English words have com­mu­nic­ated. Even those (Patois) words that we would want to use to fully explain what was in the ori­ginal, are words that are vulgar.”

I’m not sure this is a fair cri­ti­cism. Here’s the same verse in three trans­la­tions See if you can guess which one is the KJV verse.

  1. My lover tried to unlatch the door, and my heart thrilled within me.
  2. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my heart was moved for him.
  3. My beloved put in his hand by the hole of the door, and my bowels were moved for him.

The pas­sage is from the Song of Solomon 5:4.* One trans­la­tion is — I’ll grant you — pro­foundly loaded, per­haps impart­ing a mean­ing that isn’t imme­di­ately obvi­ous from the two other ‘lit­eral’ trans­la­tions. But I also think in mod­ern terms it might be con­sidered vul­gar. When you look at what is in the Bible, I’m stuck won­der­ing what vul­gar­ity Patois inflicts that isn’t already there. I think some­thing over­looked is the power of a translation.

I thought the first full trans­la­tion of the Bible in the British Isles was William Morgan’s Welsh Bible, used to turn the Welsh away from Catholicism. I was wrong. A quick skim through Wikipedia shows me the Bishops’ Bible beat it by twenty years, and while the Geneva Bible wasn’t actu­ally trans­lated into English in the British Isles, it’s still an immensely import­ant trans­la­tion in the his­tory of England. In these cases trans­la­tion is a polit­ical and often rebel­li­ous act. The Geneva Bible was a Protestant trans­la­tion and gave them a Bible with which to fight the Latin of Catholicism. The Bishops’ Bible was offi­cially sanc­tioned so it’s hard to call it rebel­li­ous, but even so it was a Protestant Bible at a time when England was an enemy of strong Catholic power in Europe.

Translating a Bible into Jamaican Patois is a subtle, but strong, state­ment that cur­rent Christian author­ity has failed, at least to some degree. So what does a sup­port­ing an estab­lished trans­la­tion against new ver­sions mean? In the UK the gov­ern­ment is send­ing an offi­cial Bible with a fore­word by polit­ical heavy­weight+ Michael Gove. The media con­cen­trated on the pre­dict­able com­plaint by the National Secular Society and athe­ists, but even Christians are aware that offi­cial reli­gions can take dis­sent badly. The pre­tence is that eth­ics are derived from the Bible, but as Conservapedia is show­ing, people make Bibles to suit their eth­ics.

While I can see there are aes­thetic mer­its to vari­ous trans­la­tions, in this case elev­at­ing one trans­la­tion and dis­par­aging oth­ers car­ries a big polit­ical pay­load, even if the judge­ment is aes­thetic. It might be pos­sible to turn the book of Habakkuk into a thrill­ing page turner, but it would prob­ably involve some extremely loose trans­la­tion. But is any church leader likely to say: “My favour­ite book is Jeffrey Archer’s trans­la­tion of Habakkuk. It’s hugely inac­cur­ate, but it’s grip­ping from start to end!”? It seems unlikely you can divorce aes­thet­ics from truth unless you live in what Kelvin Holdsworth called a theo­lo­gic­ally neut­ral soci­ety.

Photo: Joshua 18, Abandoned Bible by Patrick Feller. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY licence.

* It’s well worth read­ing the bib­lical com­ment­ary for clas­sic lines like: By the “door” is meant the door of her heart, which was in a great meas­ure shut against Christ, through the pre­val­ence of cor­rup­tion; and the “hole” in it shows that it was not entirely shut up…

+ Or paper­weight if you prefer.

My God, it’s full of stars!

Orion in the night sky

I saw a shoot­ing star last night as it streaked across a sky full of stars. I kid you not! You could look up and see thou­sands of stars. Now, astro­nomy mavens might not be too impressed by that. Many people can see stars as dim as mag­nitude six in a dark sky, lucky people can see dim­mer stars. There accounts for around 6000 vis­ible naked-eye stars. But for many of us that’s simply not true.

I used to live in a sub­urb of Derby. When I moved to Powys I noticed there were more stars in the sky. A lot more. So many I was temp­ted to buy a tele­scope. The next 30 days were clouded out, so that killed that idea, but on the days when stars are vis­ible they’re stun­ningly impress­ive. There is a way to quantify how impress­ive the night sky is that you can help with next year.

Orion in the night sky

Orion, the Hunter by Eduardo Mariño.

When I was in Derby I took part in GLOBE at Night. It’s a sur­vey that asks you to describe what you can see. The ver­sion I took part in asked people to say which stars they could see in Orion, the image on the right. It’s a good choice because the belt makes it easy to identify. I could see those. I could also see Betelguese (top-left), Bellatrix (top-right) and Rigel (bottom-right). If I squin­ted and stared hard I could ima­gine I could see Saiph (bottom-left), but really I couldn’t. There was a sodium glow of dank yel­low reach­ing up into the sky like lurid phlegm-coloured fog. It was the first time I’d real­ised how bad the local light pol­lu­tion was. In con­trast, I can’t account for every star in the photo shown, partly because as your eye dark-adapts you see more stars. However, this image is a very good impres­sion of what I saw. I had no trouble at all see­ing Orion’s belt. It didn’t look like a fig­ure of gems on a vel­vet back­ground. Instead the major stars looked like gems over a back­ground where someone had sneezed dia­mond dust.

It’s pos­sible this long-term cold I’ve had since September is affect­ing me more than I think.

The dif­fer­ence isn’t just in quant­ity. A dark sky makes a big dif­fer­ence to the qual­ity of the sky. I thought I knew my way around the night sky pretty well. Last night I could see Orion out of my win­dow, but took a little while to find Taurus. Again, a good ama­teur astro­nomer might find this funny. Taurus should be unmiss­able. Even more so when you have a dark sky, mak­ing the stars even easier to see. In the Northern hemi­sphere you look a little way to the right and you’ll see the horns of Taurus the bull live a V shape. Aldebaran sits at the top of one of the horns. This V is made of bright stars, it’s the most vis­ible part of the con­stel­la­tion, it is strik­ing. But when you have a prop­erly dark sky it’s strik­ing among a whole load of other stars. In Derby Taurus was to the right of Orion. In Powys it still is, but this time there’s an awful lot of stars in between them. It’s easier to find your when around the night sky when you can only see the prom­in­ent stars. Here, it’s almost like the sky has developed a glit­ter­ing inter­fer­ence pattern.

I know that light pol­lu­tion has been a topic of pain for astro­nomers for dec­ades. In my head I can fully under­stand it as a quant­it­ive argu­ment. Dark skies = more stars. That might not be enough for a power­ful emotive argu­ment. Imagine you live some­where where the night sky is rub­bish. Reducing light pol­lu­tion isn’t such a big deal. It just means more rub­bish look­ing stars. I also won­der if heavy light pol­lu­tion, which is worst nearest the hori­zon, helps dis­tance people from the Cosmos. Banishing the vis­ible stars to the highest parts of the sky emphas­ise the sep­ar­a­tion between earthly life and the rest of the uni­verse. A dark sky shows that where you are is the place where the Earth meets the Sky. Below you soil, above only the unima­gin­able heights to the edge of the uni­verse, and you smack in the middle.

That feels dif­fer­ent and it’s some­thing you can’t repro­duce in a planetarium.

Photo: Orion by Eduardo Mariño. Licenced under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA licence.

As a coda, I remem­ber read­ing about the after­math of Hurricane Andrew in Astronomy magazine. After the power had been cut the night sky was exposed. People phoned up local uni­ver­sit­ies, plan­et­aria and obser­vat­or­ies to ask what the lights in the sky were. At the time I lived in the coun­try, so I found the idea that people could be puzzled by stars hil­ari­ous. Having lived in a city now, and know­ing that many people have never lived any­where else I have a lot more empathy. Imagine liv­ing through a hur­ricane and then, for the first time in your life, the uni­verse arrives on your door­step. No won­der you’d want to phone someone to check it’s normal.

The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby

The Pericles Commission Cover

The Pericles Commission CoverI finally got around to get­ting The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby this week. is it any good? If the sus­pense is too much for you, Gary’s a nice bloke, so if it were rub­bish I wouldn’t men­tion I’ve read it. The reason I left off buy­ing it for so long was that I was wait­ing for the paper­back. In the end the Kindle price dropped to the paper­back, so I got that ver­sion. I’ll also be buy­ing the sequel The Ionia Sanction, pos­sibly not till the price drops with the paper­back for that too, but then again it might be a Christmas treat instead.

The book is based on a real event. Ephialtes estab­lished the Athenian demo­cracy (if you ignore Cleisthenes), and then was killed a few days after by xxxxxxxxxxxxxx (I just real­ised, this would be a big spoiler). This, as Gary Corby points out in his author’s note, is in a few lines of the Constitution of the Athenians — which we’ll say was writ­ten by Aristotle because a dis­cus­sion of the author­ship would be tedi­ous, incon­clus­ive and utterly irrel­ev­ant to the point.

The book opens quickly.

A dead man fell from the sky, land­ing at my feet with a thud. I stopped and stood there like a fool, aston­ished to see him lying where I was about to step. He lay face­down in the dirt, arms spread wide, with an arrow pro­trud­ing out his back. He’d been shot through the heart.

It was obvi­ous he was dead, but I knelt down and touched him any­way, per­haps because I needed to assure myself that he was real. The body was warm to my touch. The blood that stained my fin­ger­tips, from where I had touched his wound, was slip­pery and wet but already begin­ning to dry in the heat, and the small cloud of dust his fall had raised made my nose itch as it settled.

It doesn’t nor­mally rain corpses, so where had this one come from? I looked up. There was a ledge above me, and another to the left. The one dir­ectly above was the Rock of the Areopagus, home to the coun­cil cham­bers of our elder states­men. The other to the left, but much farther away, was the Acropolis. There was no doubt about it; this man had fallen from the polit­ical heights.

Continue read­ing