Rare Interview: An Audience with Neil Armstrong

An Audience with Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong very rarely gives interviews, so this is something pretty special. This is a 4 part interview (each 15 minutes long) discussing different aspects of the space race and Neil Armstrong’s involvement in it. There aren’t many of these around so sit back and enjoy. He’s really a joy to listen too.

Click here for the interviews

And so the Noctilucent Cloud Season of 2012 begins…

What are these noctilucent clouds? Well, I’m sure you can easily deduce it. That’s right they are ‘night-shining clouds’. And now is the start of the season for them (they only occur in the northern hemisphere between June and August). These simply aren’t your normal clouds though, these are something special.

Noctilucent Clouds

First of all they are the highest clouds in the atmosphere. They occur in an area called the mesosphere (they’re also called polar mesospheric clouds for this reason). The mesosphere sits atop the stratosphere which itself sits atop the troposphere (which is where all other clouds and weather form). So these things are pretty high up, 75 – 85km up in fact.

So why do these things ‘night-shine’? It’s pretty simple really, they occur so high up that if you were where they were you’d be able to see the Sun. So they simply reflect the sunlight they’re seeing down to us.

The problem is is that not a lot is known or understood about these clouds, how they form and so on. The best thing though is that you can help. There’s a lovely little Facebook community who go out and report and photograph sightings. There’s also a very useful forum if you wish to know more.

So become a citizen scientist for the summer and help us learn more about these peculiar clouds!

Looking Back at Planet Dinosaur

Explaining why we think Spinosaurus hunted in water. Credit: BBC

I’ve been re-watching the BBC’s recent series ‘Planet Dinosaur‘. It’s basically a new, modern version of Walking with Dinosaurs. The thing to note is is that they are actually completely different. Walking with Dinosaurs told us what the dinosaurs did, how they lived and so on. Planet Dinosaur does the same but with one important additional feature. They provide the evidence. Parts of each episode swipe away to look at the fossils, so we can see what kind of predator attacked this type of herbivore because of the bite marks left behind, and similar things along these lines.

Explaining the Predator/Prey Relationship. Credit: BBC

In one episode they even manage to get the complex analysis of oxygen isotope data across to show you that a land based predator hunted in the water. Impressive stuff, the graphics are pretty immense too. It’s also narrated by John Hurt, who narrated Human Planet.

So once again, well done to the BBC, a truly corking job.
The series is available on iTunes too at the moment for only £7.99

The Need for Scientific Literacy

When a layman gazes up at the night sky they see these little points of light in this blackness. When someone who’s scientifically literate gazes up at the night sky they see these enormous suns, and galaxies, and magnetic fields, the fusion, the interaction of molecules, the collisions of black holes, the destruction of solar systems and immense distances…and great mysteries.

That was an adaptation of something Joan Feynman said in an episode of Horizon in 1993 and it really hits the nail on the head (although it isn’t the entire story here). If you’re scientifically literate you understand a lot more about the world.

But what do we mean by being scientifically literate? (Or more what is it I think it should mean) Is it the ability the recite facts: the Earth is round, Mercury is the innermost planet, leaves have chlorophyll in them, radio waves are part of the electromagnetic spectrum. In a way, yes, it is partly this. These are facts everyone should know (there are ofcourse many more people should know) but what I think is really important is for people the understand the scientific method and to be sceptical. That’s how science works and to ask the right questions.

Broadly speaking the scientific method works be guessing something (a new law for example), then you see what that new law would imply, and then you compare it to experimentation to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it’s wrong.

The next step is asking the right question. For example, you’re ill and someone suggests crystal healing (putting some crystals under your pillow) do you say ‘cool, i’ll try that’ or do you ask ‘hmm, how does that work?’

In my opinion if these two simple principals can be entwined into the education system, the world will be a slightly better place.

Here’s Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson discussing scientific literacy a bit further.

We’re off the moons of Jupiter…in 2022

I’ve been waiting a long time for this and I’m pretty sure all planetary scientists have been waiting a long time for this too. It’s regarded as the most important destination(s) in the solar system. That’s right, we’re finally off to the moons of Jupiter. Well we will be in 2022 anyway.

After a brief competition with two other space mission proposals JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) will head off to Jupiter in 2022 and arrive in 2030 and spent a minimum of 3 years studying Jupiter’s moons. And it’s a European mission too!

JUICE and the Jupiter System

Why the moons of Jupiter? Well, the moons here are exceedingly interesting. Io, first of all, is the most volcanic object in the solar system (although Io won’t be studied much with this mission). The other 3 main moons are the really exciting ones though. Callisto is a fairly large moon and its surface is incredibly old, peppered with craters. It’s holding clues as to the formation of the Jupiter system some 4.5 billion years ago. Europa, the most famous of the moons, has a liquid ocean beneath it’s icy surface, and a very bizarre looking surface. Could there be life in the ocean? It’s a distinct possibility. The mission is mainly focusing on Ganymede though, the largest moon in the solar system, so large it’s bigger than Mercury! It generates it’s own magnetic field. How? Through a salty sub-surface ocean or a molten iron core?


The spacecraft itself looks quite interesting too. It’s going to be operating at the limits of what’s possible. It’ll be using solar power where there isn’t much solar power. Previous missions have used nuclear generators which are far more efficient this far out, but there’s a shortage of the plutonium required for such endeavours at the moment. We’re likely to get an advancement in solar power technology through the efforts of this mission though.

In my opinion NASA have really mucked up. With all their budget cuts they’re not planning a mission to launch to study Jupiter’s moons until well into the 2030’s despite having been told it is the utmost priority of planetary science at the moment. There’s a possibility they’ll add some hardware to the JUICE mission, but we’ll have to really wait and see. What we’d like to see is a Europa lander and ocean explorer (as outlined in NASA’s JIMO mission, now cancelled).

There’s one certainty though, we’re going to find out some truly exciting stuff and we’re going to be surprised with what we find!

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Thunder Drop: Life Inside a Thunderstorm


Those of you who know me know that I’m pretty intrigued by the weather and how it works. The single factor I’m mainly interested in though are cumulonimbus clouds…thunderstorms. As a child I remember kneeling on my bed peering out through the window into the night sky waiting for flashes of lightning and the accompanying thunder. Those flashes, those rumbles didn’t come from a machine or an animal, they came from the deep depths of natures most violent assemblage.

Thankfully over the last few years I’ve managed to learn a great deal about the clouds that form thunderstorms, what happens inside them, how they work and so. They’re a no go area for aircraft and I’m trained to recognise them before they’ve formed in order to let the flight crews know they’re around so they can avoid them.

We all know that thunderstorms produce thunder and lightning bu they a produce a huge arsenal of other phenomena too including: severe torrential downpours, hail (sometimes the size of baseballs), incredible gusts of wind, updrafts and downdrafts (where you can loose a 1,000 or more feet in a few seconds in an airplane) and worst of all tornadoes.

No one’s ever really been able to say what it’s like inside a thunderstorm though. People have been in them, flown through them but they didn’t live to tell the tale. That was until the incredible story of Lt Col William Rankin (aka The Man Who Rode The Thunder) came about in 1959. He was a marine corps aviator flying the supersonic F-8U Crusader. Ahead of him was a thunderstorm. No problem, the aircraft could easily fly over it at 50,000ft (the top of this thunderstorm was about 44,000ft, they can get to 60,000ft though). Then, right atop the thunderstorm, the engine failed…it wouldn’t come back online either. He wasn’t wearing a high altitude pressure suit (the higher you go the less air there is – think of taking a bottle of water on a plane) he had to eject.

The F-8U Crusader

He was immediately subjected to explosive decompression, severe wind and extensive frostbite (it was -50°C up there, then add the wind chill). His mouth, nose, eyes and ears started bleeding, the lower pressure having ruptured capillaries. The gases in his body expanded, his intestines, stomach and other organs expanding perhaps 3 times their normal size. He remarked in his book “I briefly glanced down at my abdomen and it had expanded to a size as if I were pregnant”. Then he went into the thunderstorm where things didn’t get much better.

His parachute was set to automatically open at 10,000ft, but the pressure being lower in a thunderstorm tricked it and it opened at about 15,000ft. It should take him less than 10 minutes to reach the ground. 40 minutes later he landed. The incredible updrafts in the storm kept him aloft for much, much longer. He described the lightning as blue blades several feet thick close enough the touch, he felt the thunder shuddering through every bone in his body, the rain, so intense, almost caused him to drown, and then the hail, the size of baseballs, whacking into him.

He survived to tell the tale. To my knowledge no other human being as ever experienced such an occurrence since.

…the unbelievable torture of a thunderstorm, the fright of it, the terrible physical beating, the twisting and turning and tumbling, the awesomeness of lightning so close it could almost be touched, the vibrating horror of thunder never meant for human ears, the fierce pounding of hail, the drenching of rain so torrential it might just as well have been an ocean suspended in the air…

– Lt Col William Rankin, from his book The Man Who Rode The Thunder