Marching for science

It’s probably fair to say that I’m a bit of a science nerd. In fact, it’s a little more than that. I think that science is essential to how we develop as a species. It is an ongoing search for truth and understanding. It is how we rise above our own parochial views and engage with the bigger picture of the world around us. So when science comes under attack, I’m not going to just stand idly by. Continue reading

A night at the observatory

As I think I’ve mentioned before, I recently joined the Bristol Astronomical Society. The Society is lucky enough to have a small observatory just outside Bristol and John, who manages the observatory, was kind enough to show me how everything works. This means that I’m now allowed to help out at the observing sessions that the Society runs on Saturday nights.

The observatory consists of a 12″ telescope in a small dome and an 18″ telescope mounted on a concrete plinth outside. In addition to these fixed scopes, members of the club generally take along their own equipment. Some of the more experienced among them have some pretty serious pieces of kit, including computerised mounts (where you just type in what you want to look at and the scope orients itself automatically) and telescope-mounted cameras.

Now, on this occasion, I’d remember to take my own camera along. So I seized the opportunity to snap some photos of my fellow astronomers doing their thing. Here we are setting things up. You will perhaps note that we are somewhat early in getting ready, given that it’s not at all dark. But it’s a lot easier to get telescopes, cameras, laptops etc. connected in the daylight.

As the sun disappeared over the horizon, a certain air of expectancy descended upon us. We began to squint towards the southern sky, where the first stars would soon make their appearance.

And we took this final chance to tweak a few settings…

As darkness fell upon us, things got serious. And as you can see, I wasn’t joking about the serious amount of kit that some members bring along. Bob here uses his telescopes and cameras to take some seriously fantastic images of deep sky objects.

And I can personally vouch for the fact that it is a lot easier to put a webcam on your telescope’s eyepiece and look at the stars on your laptop, than to spend the entire night hunched over the telescope itself. This chap’s got it sussed.

Unfortunately, before it had even got properly dark, the clouds came in and obscured the heavens above. But not before we’d seen the planets Mercury, Venus and Saturn, several satellites and the International Space Station. So even though it was cut somewhat short, we had a fairly decent night at the observatory.

A few observations

Having over time developed more than a passing interest in astronomy and astrophysics (as you do), I’ve recently joined the Bristol Astronomical Society. One of the many great things about the society is its small observatory in a field just outside Bristol. And last weekend, we hosted a horde of local schoolchildren and their parents for an evening of observation… and an introduction to the wonders of the universe.

It was light when we started, so we had a couple of solar telescopes (fitted with special filters to protect the eyes) that allowed people to see sunspots and solar prominences. And in the dome, we had the 12″ Cyril Swindin telescope pointed at the moon, which looked great even in the daylight. Here’s a view from the dome, with the moon in the distance. And yes, the telescope is exceedingly cool.

View from the dome

As it got dark, we replaced the solar telescopes with some regular ones and all attention turned to the planets. First up was Venus, followed closely by Jupiter with its moons. We then swung across the sky to have a look at Saturn, with its rings clearly visible. The reception from the kids (and their parents) was great. And, to be honest, I had quite a lot of fun, too.

I’ll be a runner yet

Regular readers of my blog will know that for the past few months I’ve been doing a bit of running. Nothing special, just a few miles three or four times a week. So the weekend just gone marked something of a watershed moment – my first proper race! Yes, it was the long-awaited Bristol 10k. No hills. No muddy scrambles. And no having to stop to wait for the dog to finish rolling in something disgusting. Just six and a quarter miles of flat, traffic-free roads.

Obviously, I was nervous as hell. I was fairly confident I could run the distance, as I’ve covered 10k a couple of times already in training. But I’m not so good with new situations or crowds. Both of which the race brought in spades. But I had my race number, my race plan (Try to enjoy yourself. Try to finish in under an hour. And try not to get overtaken by anyone dressed as a piece of fruit.) and my support team*. So I was good to go. In fact, here I am…

Before the start

I was towards the beginning of the first of two waves in the mass start, so there were all sorts of runners around me. Some were clearly quite experienced, very focused and hoping for a personal best. Others, like me, were less experienced and just hoping not to disgrace themselves in any way. And there were a lot of us. Somewhere north of nine thousand, in fact. Here come some of them now…

Let the race begin

I found my pace fairly quickly, though the first couple of kilometres involved a lot of weaving in and out of slower runners and getting out of the way of faster ones. After that, however, I found myself in a group of people all going at roughly the same speed as me, which made things a lot easier. As did the huge crowds of people cheering us on, which gave me a real boost. Here’s me doing my thing… (Yes, I really am that ungainly. Sorry.)

On the move

My support team seemed to be zipping around the course about as quickly as I was, as she managed to catch me on camera on a number of occasions. She also seemed a little stunned that I wasn’t right at the back (as, to be honest, was I), but managed to wave and make encouraging noises. Though she did say afterwards that I didn’t look as knackered as I should have done, so clearly wasn’t running fast enough. Nice.

Mission accomplished

As you can see from the photo above, I finished the race and got my medal. I even managed a bit of a sprint down the home straight. And having covered the course in 56 minutes and 9 seconds, I was pleased with my time. (Although it sounds a little less impressive when I point out that came 4,375th!). But I enjoyed myself, I finished in under an hour, and I didn’t get overtaken by a single piece of fruit.

* A rather unimpressed Natalie, who had been planning on a lie-in until I realised that the first train into town was too late to get me to the start on time and that I’d need a lift. Typical comment from my support team: “Oh, I didn’t realise you were running in fancy dress.” I wasn’t.

Up and running (nearly)

The weather here over the past few weeks has been pretty atrocious. We’ve had snow, hail, rain, more snow, and then some more rain. But the days are getting gradually longer and the sun has finally started to make an appearance. And I’ve realised that, with one thing and another, I’ve only been running once since Christmas.

Following the advice of professional coach and all-round running legend Bruce Tulloh in his excellent book ‘Running is easy’, I’d gradually built up to running forty minutes or so and covering about four miles, so I was making good progress. But with the weather being as it was, and the evenings being so dark, I hadn’t been able to gather the motivation to get my trainers on and get out there.

This is clearly not a positive state of affairs. Sitting at my desk all day working may be good for my bank balance, but it’s definitely not good for my health or my waistline. I decided that I need a little incentive to get myself up and running, as it were. So I decided to enter a race. I thought something about 10km would probably be about right. And if I could find something in May or June, this would give me time to get back in shape.

Two local races fit the bill. First, there’s the Bristol 10k on 5th May. This is a popular and well-known race, bringing together about 12,000 runners of all abilities on a reasonably flat course around the city’s harbourside. There’s tons of support available in terms of training tips and events, and if you finish the race you get a T-shirt and even a medal. And secondly, there’s the Tyntesfield Ten on the 23rd. This is an off road race around the grounds of a local stately home and attracts a field of about 400. No T-shirt, no medal – nobody’s even really sure how long the course is.

Despite the two races being almost polar opposites, I couldn’t decide which one I wanted to try. So I have (perhaps rather rashly) entered both. Which means that I am going to have to get a little bit fitter, a little bit faster and a whole lot more organised. I’m going to have to develop a training plan to get me from here (tired bloke slumped over a desk) to there (muscular athletic bloke gliding effortlessly across the countryside). And I am most definitely going to have to stop getting put off by a little bit of rain.

An early morning wonderland

I’ve just got back from taking the dog for her morning walk across the fields. It was a little nippy first thing (about minus two degrees when we first went outside) and the mist was hanging over the countryside like something magical, as if the Earth was still waking up and hadn’t quite got dressed yet.

I only had my cameraphone with me, I’m afraid, so my photos aren’t very good. But hopefully you can get some idea of what it was like. Here’s the ‘bottom field’. You can see that someone was here before us. And you can just make out Molly on the left, following a scent. Just after I took this photo, she had a mad puppy moment and ran right up the hill, around the tree in the patch of sunlight at the top and then back to me. No idea why.

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The sun was just coming up over the hills on the far side of the valley and it was so beautiful as it shone through the trees. The photo doesn’t really do it justice. I must remember to take at least my (sorry, Natalie’s) Nikon Coolpix with me next time.

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Here’s the view over the valley. Where we live used to be an island in the middle ages, so you can almost imagine what it must have been like to be surrounded by water. If you look carefully, you can see the church in the next village just looming out of the mist in the distance. What you can’t see, but I wish you could, is the tiny wisp of smoke coming from one of the little cottages among the trees on the far hillside. It made me smile to think of someone (possibly just like me) stoking the fire to make their first cup of tea of the day.

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Here’s the other way down the valley. Somewhere beyond the mist far off to the left is the city of Bristol. You’d never think we were only a twenty minute drive from the city centre.

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Here’s my favourite photo of the morning. It truly does, to my eyes at least, look like an early morning wonderland. Well worth getting out of bed for. Even at minus two degrees.

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Up, up and away…

I was awoken at seven o’clock last Friday morning by my wife’s insistence that she could hear a balloon. Now, I know that I don’t always function particularly well first thing in the morning, but I challenge anyone to describe what a balloon sounds like. I thought at first that it might be some kind of Zen koan. But then it struck me that this weekend is the Bristol Balloon Fiesta and things started to make a bit more sense.

A quick glance out of the bedroom window confirmed that there was, indeed, a huge hot air balloon floating past at an alarmingly low level, its burner roaring as the pilot attempted to avoid the chimney pots and telegraph poles along our street. See what I mean in the photo below.

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The morning and evening ‘mass ascents’ are the highlights of the annual event. It’s quite rare that the winds (which usually blow the other way) bring the balloons in our direction, though, so we grabbed our cameras – and the dog – and headed out into the garden for a better look.*

It turned out that the balloon that had woken us was a bit ahead of the rest of the pack, which was heading towards us from the launch site to the north east. They made a brilliant sight as they emerged out of the sun, even if the photo below doesn’t really do them justice.

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I figured that we still had a few minutes before the rest of the balloons got to us, so I dashed in to feed the dog and to get us each a cup of tea. When I got back, things were definitely starting to happen. I was beginning to wish, though, that I’d put some jeans on over my jim-jams – or at least a dressing gown.

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It was fantastic to stand and watch the different balloons glide serenely overhead. And it was a particular fluke that most of them seemed to pass directly over our garden. This is my favourite photo, which I took as one of the balloons was just coming up over the house.

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This is my second favourite photo. I wish the sky was always this blue.

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Some of the balloons were quite a bit lower, though, so we could wave at the people dangling out of the baskets. A few of them were particularly enthusiastic.

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Molly was also quite enthusiastic. We’ve tried hard to socialise her to the sorts of things that she’s likely to come across, but I have to admit that low-flying hot air balloons full of screaming, waving people was not on our list. Once she’d got the obligatory initial bout of woofing out of the way, though, she seemed to take it in her stride.

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And then, as quickly and as silently as they had arrived, the balloons were gone.

* I’ll spare you the photos of me wandering around in a dazed fashion wearing only my Canon DSLR and a pair of pyjamas, because there’s already enough filth on the internet and I have no desire to add to it.

A bit disappointing (and how not to ask a question)

I had really been looking forward to Wednesday evening. It’s Bristol’s ‘Big Green Week’ this week and I’d got tickets to go to a lecture on regeneration with Tim Smit (founder of the Lost Gardens of Heligan and the Eden Project), designer Kevin McCloud (presenter of the ‘Grand Designs’ programme on TV) and Rob Hopkins (founder of the Transition Network). These are three people whose work I have followed with interest and who I have come to admire. So I was keen to hear what they had to say. Such was my enthusiasm that I had even convinced Natalie – who generally shies away from evening lectures like this – to come along with me.

I should have known that something was up when we took our seats and were immediately subjected (having already paid £8 each for our tickets) to an on-screen commercial for one of the event sponsors, a well-known ‘ethical’ bank. This struck me as a little weird, but I don’t go to many things like this so perhaps it’s normal. The chair of the session, who was the CEO of one of the other sponsors (a renewable energy company) then introduced herself and went off on a bit of a ramble about her own company. This blatant self-promotion seemed distinctly uncool.

When it came to the main speakers, however, I must admit that I have never been so disappointed in my life. Rob Hopkins was a reasonably entertaining speaker and gave some interesting examples of the projects that Transition Towns have undertaken. But I’m not convinced that the solution to the various problems that we face as a society is to get to know our neighbours better and to start a community bakery. It can’t hurt, for sure, but as far as I can see it’s more likely to merely make middle-class people with lots of free time feel that they’re doing something positive, when in fact they’re just appeasing their conscience about driving around town in a small tank.

Kevin McCloud was likewise a competent and enthusiastic speaker, but didn’t really seem to have a particularly strong narrative about what he wanted to say. He talked a bit about some of the projects he is involved in (such as the HAB housing project), and told some interesting anecdotes, but didn’t really give me any particular sense of how regeneration should be done and how we can go about it. He also rambled far too much and ran out of time, so that his lecture just petered out in slight confusion.

Tim Smit, to take things one step further, appeared to be proud that he had no idea at all about what he wanted to say. In fact, he seemed to think that just having him there on stage would be sufficient for us to sit enraptured and adore him. He told us how he had managed to insult various audiences (although in my view he didn’t so much insult the audience, as their intelligence) and moved from random fact to baseless assertion to blatant slur (are all NGO chief executives, for example, incompetent and vain?). What could have been an inspirational insight into someone often labelled as a ‘maverick genius’ was, instead, an incoherent ramble that left us none the wiser about anything whatsoever. Having gone into the lecture thinking that Tim Smit was the bees knees, I found myself liking him a little bit less every time he opened his mouth.

My frustration with the event was compounded by the question and answer session at the end. The chair called on several people in the audience, each of whom decided that rather than asking a question to the panellists, they’d much prefer to just introduce themselves, promote whichever tedious company they happen to work for, and give their thoughts on something unrelated to the topic of the lecture. This seems to be a Bristol thing, because I’ve seen it happen at several events around here, but never anywhere else. In the end, with the session having already overrun by ten minutes, we cut our losses and left.

So not an outstanding success. In fact, a major disappointment. To feel so let down by three people that I had admired greatly is absolutely gutting. I sometimes wonder why we find it so difficult as a society to address the problems that we face, but if this is how the people to whom we look to for answers behave, then I think I may have my answer. I went into the lecture looking for inspiration, but came out feeling nothing but despair. Now, I may not be Martin Luther King, but if I was trying to make a difference and was given half an hour with three hundred people who already kind of agreed with me, I would hope that I could do better than this. Much better.

At the Bristol BioBlitz

And while I’m writing about the Bristol BioBlitz, here are some photos from the event itself.

A warm welcome

A warm welcome to the Bristol BioBlitz 2012

Gill

Gill enthuses some of our visitors with stories about the mammals that live in the cemetery

Hedgehog detector

A hedgehog detector: The little chap walks through the ink at the entrance to the tunnel and leaves tiny footprints as he heads for the sausage our naturalists have left in the middle

Richard

Richard explores some of the many trees on the historic site

Sign

All the signs of an excellent day out