Thursday, 23 February 2012

Blue tit

Blue tit asleep in the nest box my wife and I put up last year. First resident we've had. Crappy picture, I know. Will try a better one later.

Edit: here's a second shot, still fuzzy, but you can see the head:

Monday, 20 February 2012

Shine like an Arc Light

Today is the scheduled launch day of ARC, New Scientist's ambitious new SF/Futurism magazine - think OMNI updated for 2012. The magazine is mainly an e-reader publication, although I understand that there will be a limited number of print editions.

Some information:

I presume at some point there will be a link to ARC's purchase and download options.

My story "The Water Thief" appears in the first issue, which also includes stories and features from Margaret Atwood, China Mieville, M John Harrison, Stephen Baxter, Hannu Rajaniemi, Adam Roberts, Paul Graham Raven and others.

Sunday, 19 February 2012


I had another go tonight. I set my scope up at 6.00 pm and was onto Jupiter very quickly. The first thing I did was make sure I was definitely saving files. I then had a look in the camera configuration and was able to turn the gain down to the point where I could begin to see detail on the planet, although at the expense of no longer being able to see the moons. I took many similar looking frames over the next hour, while clouds rolled in and away. This is one of the frames; I've cropped it and adjusted the brightness slightly but otherwise this is as it arrived on my laptop. There are some tools for stacking frames but I've yet to dig into that.

At 6.45 there was a very bright ISS pass - it came tantalisingly close to Jupiter, but well outside the field of the view of my scope. Not long after I ran out of battery power for the scope's RA drive - not bad given that I don't think I've ever changed the batteries.

So there you go - Jupiter, from my back garden. Pretty pleased with that.


So I'm trying to get into astrophotography. I thought it might be worthwhile to document my progress here, successes and failures both. We'll begin, predictably enough, with ignominious failure. But first a bit of background.

I was a professional astronomer for a large chunk of my life. I studied astronomy, gained a PhD (in the course of which I wrote and published three papers on the velocities of binary stars). After that, I worked in Holland. Apart from a two-year stint at Utrecht University, all of my employment was within the European Space Agency. During that time I worked on many projects, relating to both space and ground-based astronony - and published many more papers. My research interests broadened from binary stars to compact accreting objects, such as black holes, pulsars and white dwarves. Along the way I also worked on distance determination to quasars and spectral studies of ordinary stars. By the time I left, in 2004, I'd been lucky enough to not only have a career in astronomy, but to visit some amazing places and meet some extremely smart people, including some true legends. But that, more or less, was it for me. I didn't fall out of love with astronomy but after I quit, I certainly felt the need to get away from it a bit.

However, before all this professionalism, I was also an amateur astronomer. My parents kindly bought me a telescope when I was 16, and it changed my life. It was a small but capable refractor, and I still have it, and despite an unscheduled trip to the bottom of the stairs after a pub crawl, it still works very well. I now have two other scopes. The first of these was a partially dismantled and damaged reflector which a colleague of my father's thought I might be able to make something of, but unfortunately I was never able to. I'm interested in astronomy, and many astromomers are also gifted and enthusiastic at tinkering with optics and mirrors, but that's never been of great interest to me.

My other telescope was a gift from my wife. I've had it for about 15 years now; it's a Celestron reflector with a 9 and 1/4 inch mirror. It's a beautiful thing, and just within my capabilities to handle unaided. We looked at the 11 inch model, but I'm glad we didn't go for it; that extra weight makes a big difference when you've got to move things around in the dark.

It's not a "GoTo" scope. It has no in-built GPS or computer control, unlike many models now on the market- merely an equatorial mount and a Right Ascension (RA) tracking motor. But for all that it's very easy to set up and use - even with the scope de-attached from its tripod, I can be up and running in about five minutes. When I moved back to Wales, I set the elevation of the equatorial mount to the latitude for my part of the UK and haven't touched it since. A telescope must be polar-aligned for correct tracking of any astronomical object, which means finding true north and ensuring the scope is lined up along that axis. If Polaris is visible that's easy enough, but I've found that the front of my patio is close enough to the East-West axis that I can simply get away with lining up the front two legs of the tripod against the patio's edge. If I line up on Jupiter, or any other object, the telescope will keep it centered in the eyepiece for many tens of minutes, which is - or has been - good enough for me.

I've been using the Celestron quite a bit lately. I don't know whether this is due to me feeling enough "distance" from my professional career that I can just enjoy astronomy on its own terms again, or the consequence of a spate of clear nights this winter, or the fact that I've had contact with a number of astronomical societies in recent years, or even the "Brian Cox effect" (yes, I like Brian, I think he's good, and I've watched and enjoyed his programs). Whatever, the Celestron has been getting more use. And inevitably, since I am also interested in photography, I've been thinking about taking pictures. After all, why not? It's perfectly possible to enjoy the night sky, or indeed any aspect of nature, without being able to record what you're seeing - I get tremendous pleasure out of just looking at birds and animals, let alone photographing them. But, photography undoubtedly brings its own pleasures - and challenges.

With this in mind, I began looking into the possibilities of adding a camera to the Celestron. While there are a number of relatively inexpensive webcam-based imaging devices on the market - Celestron do one - it quickly became clear that these are really only good for the Moon and planets. These units cost around 100 - 150 pounds so are quite reasonable assuming you've already spent several thousand on a decent telescope (I'm not saying any of this is cheap). At the other end of the scale are high-end imaging systems costing thousands of pounds themselves. Obviously, it would have been a very bad idea to jump in at that end of the market, especially when I'm not blessed with particularly clear or dark skies most of the time. With those low and high-end systems ruled out, there seemed to be two possibilities: use my own digital SLR, with an appropriate mount, or invest in a mid-range astronomical camera with the capabilities to work on both planets and deep-sky objects. From what I could gather, there's a steep learning curve involved with SLR photography, and I liked the idea of being able to see what I was doing in realtime, via a laptop. So, I splurged on a complete camera kit from Optic Star in Sale, Manchester. The system I bought was this one, the DS-336C XL. Importantly, the kit came with all the bits and bobs I'd need to get going: an adaptor tube to connect it to my scope, cables for the laptop and optional power supply, and some software.

I installed and tested the basic software and verified that the camera was functioning, although as yet not plugged into the scope. he kit also came with Nebulosity, a sophisticated piece of imaging software, which unfortunately I can't get to run due to a problem with the C++ libraries on my laptop. I'm sure I'll get there in the end, though. Unfortunately a period of miserable weather clamped down on us and it was only last night that I was able to snatch an opportunity to try my first actual imaging run.

Jupiter is still visible in the early evening so this was my objective. I set up the scope, and used a normal eyepiece to lock onto Jupiter before it hid itself away behind some nearby trees. Even with the scope just out of the house, the view was excellent: all four Galilean moons on display, and at least two prominent bands on the face of Jupiter itself. I then swapped the eyepiece for the camera, plugged the camera into the USB port on my laptop (which was balanced on a kitchen stool out on the patio, next to the scope) and started up the imaging software. What I got was a blank black rectangle.

Nothing. No Jupiter, no moons.

However, refusing to be daunted, and knowing that my finder scope - the little scope on the side of the main one, designed for target acquistion - isn't perfectly aligned - I tried hunting around a bit in both DEC and RA. Quickly I found a big colourful doughnut-shaped blob just out of the field of view. I centered this blob and then tried adjusting the focus (A doughnut or ring-shaped image almost always means you're out of focus. Unless you're looking at something doughnut or ring-shaped). To my delight, the object not only became sharp, but it was accompanied by four smaller blobs - the moons of Jupiter. What I couldn't see, yet, was any sign of banding. Jupiter looked white, suggesting (to me) that I needed to turn down the camera's exposure, whatever the hell that meant in the context of an imaging system. However, out in the cold and dark on the patio, I couldn't figure out what I would need to do. What I could do, though, was save frames from the image. I did this, and could even see the path on the computer where the saved files were supposed to end up. I figured this would be an acceptable first step into astrophotograhy - the acquisition of a in-focus, if over-exposed, image of Jupiter and its moons. Suitably enthused, I then swung the scope onto a couple of other targets, including M42, the nebula in Orion. All I could see on the screen, though, were stars. Oh well, early days.

When I got back indoors, though, I couldn't find my saved files. They weren't where they were supposed to be. I played around with the settings and found that I could save individual frames onto my desktop, but not into the C> Program Files > directory that the system seemed to want to write to. Presumbly some permission or other was preventing it from saving the files there. No biggie; I'll know better next time. I also did not succeed in getting the software to save multiple frames; you're supposed to be able to tell it to save a given number of frames and off it will go, but I was not able to save more than a single frame at a time. I think, anyway. One thing I'm mindful of is that my professional background may be both a help and a hindrance here - I could be bringing to bear some assumptions that simply aren't valid. It's a learning curve, in other words.

As I said, I did not manage to save any files from last night's observing run. But given the success rate of my first dip into astrophotography, it seems entirely fitting to present this completely blank (indeed, none more black) image, which was one of the test files I generated yesterday:

Beautiful, isn't it? A sight to stir the soul. The glory and wonder of the cosmos, laid bare. In all its extreme blackness. Frankly, I hope to do better next time. Meanwhile, if anyone out there is into this stuff, feel free to chip in. I'm sure I'll learn something.


Over the last week I've had a substantial catch-up on unanswered emails but if you are still waiting for one (and I know many are), please hang in there. As always I am grateful for correspondence, even if I'm not the most efficient at replying in a timely fashion.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The SFX Weekender

I spent the weekend in Prestatyn, along with about six thousand other people, attending the third SFX Weekender. This was my first time at an SFX event, and also the first time I'd been anywhere near what might be termed a "media" convention - certainly a world away from my experiences at Eastercon, or indeed almost any of the more literary-orientated events in the SF calendar, which tend to the "low key" end of things. Even the Worldcon, which has its share of costumers and VIP guests, couldn't compare to the Weekender. As others have remarked, the demographic was very different to the usual experience, skewing toward a much younger audience, and with what struck me as a fairly even gender balance among the attendees. (Less so with the guests and "entertainment", but that's also been well reported elsewhere).

I'm grateful to SFX for inviting me. I think it's important to go into these things with the right mindset. This is Pontins in Prestatyn, not the Atlantis in Reno. So dial down those expectations. I was mighty glad that my chalet was heated, and although the decor was a little distressed, and there were some interesting mold colonies in the bathroom, it was more than adequate for a couple of days. There was extra bedding. There was a television that worked, and a kettle. There was hot water on the saturday. On sunday it was no more than tepid, but I put this down to everyone rushing to have a shower before checking out in the morning.

Equally, having done my homework, I wasn't surprised to find that the dining options on site were rubbish. Fortunately there were a couple of decent restaurants in town, which was not a long walk from the camp. My colleagues from Orion (Jon Weir, Gillian Redfearn, Simon Spanton and Marcus Gipps) took excellent care of their authors, ensuring there was a ready supply of takeaway pizza and chinese in one of the chalets. Less brilliant, but impossible to resolve on the weekend, was the complete absence of tea or coffee in the main entertainment area. There were a couple of bars (I found the service perfectly OK and friendly, though others have moaned) but I'm not one for drinking alcohol during the day and nor am I overly fond of soft or fizzy drinks. Basically, I'm a writer. I'm a machine for turning coffee into fiction. As an aside, there's much talk of making SF events more inclusive, but I wonder how effective these efforts can ever be when so much of SF culture seems to resolve around alcohol? There are times when British fandom seems to be little more than the literary wing of the Campaign for Real Ale.

What would also have been nice would have been an area to sit down and have a quiet conversation. My abiding memory of the weekend is struggling to hear people, be they on panels or in the bars. It was loud, all the time. But, it was also pretty good fun. I saw a lot of basically happy people. I met some good friends and made some new acquaintances. It certainly feels more "buzzing" than Eastercon and many of the usual Eastercon faces were present, but it's too soon to say whether or not the Weekender will supplant that long-running tradition.

I didn't have too much to do all weekend. I was asked to moderate a panel on space opera, a topic I'm frankly sick to death of, but I think we managed to drag out a few interesting nuggets during our allotted time. My thanks to my fellow participants. There was a minor "moment" when I irritated my friend Jaine Fenn by raising the issue of gender disparity among SF writers, but the fault was all mine; it really had nothing to do with the focus of the topic and it was thoughtless of me to bring it up. Apologies all round.

After that, I joined fellow panelist Peter Hamilton for our joint signing session, which I think went very well. I've known Peter for twenty years, at least (did we meet at the Harrogate Mexicon in 1991, or was it a year later, during the launch of the In Dreams anthology?) but our paths have crossed remarkably infrequently in all that time. Peter is a delightful chap with a warmly appreciative readership, and I've always felt that he paved the way for the likes of me by showing that British SF writers could tackle books of truly monumental scope and not need to apologise for it. Thanks to everyone who showed up at our signing, and thanks to Peter for being good company and sending a few of his readers my way.

Saturday night found me drinking with editors Simon Spanton and Marcus Gipps, whereupon we got into a fascinating chat with a pair of couples who'd come down from Manchester. From what I could gather they'd scored some tickets to the event despite having no prior interest in sci-fi or geek culture - they'd come along purely for the hell of it, to see what it was all about. And they seemed have enjoyed themselves, which is great - exactly the kind of "outreach" there ought to be more of. After that, I ended up propping up the bar with the inestimable Jim Burns and our mutual drinking buddie Gary, talking of Jet Provosts, English Electric Lightnings and suchlike. Honestly, you had to be there. Or maybe you were glad you weren't.

Sunday morning brought anticipated travel chaos. There were no trains to Chester, and the replacement bus service couldn't cope with the demand of several thousand fans. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be invited to share a taxi with Ian Sales and a number of other friendly souls. Thanks! I still only just caught my connecting train, and it was another six hours before I was home, so I shudder to think how late I'd have been without that kind offer.

Would I go again? Depends on the coffee, I think. A chill-out zone, like a hotel lobby, with some comfy chairs and a coffee stand, would make a vast difference. To me, at least.