Saturday, 22 April 2017

The vast emptiness of our solar system



When William Shakespeare wrote, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy", he might well have been writing about the vast almost inconceivable distances of space. Often when we think about our own solar system we think of something like the image above, but all these images are a lie to help our brains get to grips with little more than the order of the planets from the Sun, a maybe a hint at the relative sizes of each planet.

Bill Bryson summed it up nicely in "The Short History of Nearly Everything" when he wrote, "Such are the distances, in fact, that it isn’t possible, in any practical terms, to draw the solar system to scale. Even if you added lots of fold-out pages to your textbooks or used a really long sheet of poster paper, you wouldn’t come close. On a diagram of the solar system to scale, with Earth reduced to about the diameter of a pea, Jupiter would be over a thousand feet away and Pluto would be a mile and a half distant (and about the size of a bacterium, so you wouldn’t be able to see it anyway). On the same scale, Proxima Centauri, our nearest star, would be almost ten thousand miles away. Even if you shrank down everything so that Jupiter was as small as the period at the end of this sentence, and Pluto was no bigger than a molecule, Pluto would still be over thirty-five feet away."

However, I've stumbled across a brilliant Solar System map on the internet (as one does), by an interactive media artist, Josh Worth. Check it out next time you're wanting to seriously procrastinate:
http://www.joshworth.com/a-tediously-accurate-map-of-the-solar-system/ : A tediously accurate map of the solar system.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Getting moderately happier


Call of the wild - a little time outdoors can improve both your mood and sleep patterns. Not related, I took this pic up the Orongorongo Valley (NZ) a few years ago - check out all the epiphytes hanging in this tree! Image: Louise Thomas

Life has delivered me a few sucker punches this year. So much so that I have been unusually paralysed – words not written, books half read, drawings started and not finished, exercise not taken, Sunday baking for school lunches forgotten about, etc.
In other words, a case of situational depression that probably isn’t going to go away by itself.

In desperation I went to my GP to enquire about counselling, but he wanted to put me on antidepressants – counselling was mind-blowingly expensive he informed me. Drugs were effective and cheap, and a nine-month course would have me back to my “old self” tout de suite.

Unfortunately, and somewhat ironically, I’m cursed by being an atheist (no higher power to turn to), a part-time cynic (the self-help books I’ve been reading are mostly stress-inducing crap filled with unobtainable standards), and I also carry a healthy suspicion about the side-effects of long-term drug taking.

The problem with drugs is I just don’t like messing with my brain – finely-honed tool that it is. Despite wanting to flip an off switch on some of the anguish it’s causing me right now.

And the problem with counselling is I doubt another human being’s intellectual capacity to provide unique insights into my particular problems. Not that my problems are unique, far from it.

Also, I have a sneaking suspicion that my na├»ve happyish “old self” might have been part of the problem in the first place. Perhaps a return to it is not actually desirable.

Finally, I suspect that, like death and taxes, some grief in life is unavoidable.

But I’m sick of wallowing – life is too precious to waste on unhealthy self-absorption. Speaking of crap self-help books, endorsement of wallowing is just one of the reasons I think the concept of personal dairies or journaling is just over-rated introspection of the worst kind (it’s worse than the scrap-booking craze, which thankfully seems to have died down, for wasting one’s life). Not that writing isn’t cathartic – indeed there are some studies that suggest that targeted, time-limited, writing about your problems helps to objectify them and suggest solutions. It’s the reason for this blog post actually. Just don’t wallow. There’s a whole world out there way more fascinating than you are – go be in it.

I accept that I can’t change past events – I had no control over them in any case (actually a feeling of lack of control over events and other’s behaviours is an identified cause of depression – that feeling of helplessness. In most cases we can only seek to control our own responses and attitudes towards events/other people).

Being a science writer, I’ve decided to tackle my emotional problems based on actual scientific studies. After all, a few rogue studies and dishonest researchers aside, if you can’t trust peer-reviewed journals, who can you trust?

The call of the wild

Henry David Thoreau once famously wrote: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

Ignoring the fact that Thoreau was in walking distance to a village and had his laundry sent out for cleaning (he was really glamping for two years while he drafted Walden), the idea of getting back to nature to combat life’s malaise is not misplaced at all.

The quote reminds me of a study I wrote about a couple of years back, Great outdoors resets biological clocks, where researchers at the Sleep and Chronobiology Laboratory at the University of Colorado, showed that when exposed to natural light without the interference of artificial lights, humans’ internal biological clocks will tightly synchronise to a natural, midsummer light-dark cycle – they effectively cured insomnia by taking subjects camping for a week (no torches or smart phones allowed).[1]

So what’s a sleep study got to do with helping my situational depression? Quite a lot, as far as I’m concerned. The researchers found that in the wild, melatonin (the stuff that makes you feel sleepy) levels rise in the early evening and then taper off before a person wakes up. But in our modern world, melatonin levels tend to decrease to daytime levels about two hours after we wake up. “In other words, our biological night extends past our wake time and contributes to why many of us are at our sleepiest soon after we wake up in the morning. With exposure to natural light, that decrease in melatonin shifts to the last hour of sleep time, then brain arousal rises earlier, likely helping people feel more alert in the morning,” writes lead researcher Professor Kenneth Wright.

It has also been well established that exposure to sunlight increases serotonin levels, which could make you happier. A bit of a turn outside is usually recommended for those suffering from SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder – but recommending a brisk walk may seem shallow in the face of over-whelming anxiety and would hardly fill the pages of a self-help book would it?

Frankly, I could do with feeling more alert, getting some better quality sleep, and a bit of sunlight. In practice, it’s midwinter here in New Zealand. Camping is definitely out – even if I knew where the tent I haven’t seen for four years was. But is there a modified form?

I’ll go for a trot along the beach and have a think about it. See if I can’t come up with a solution.

Funny update: On the way out to find myself, I was pulled over by the local constabulary at 7.45am in the morning on some deserted back streets for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign on a clear-visibility T intersection. They must have been bored staking out the intersection, I couldn’t even imagine what they were pulling me over for – I drive like a deferential Nana. I was given a $150 fine and 25 demerit points on my licence (my first ever in over 30 years of driving). Who said the universe doesn’t have a perverse sense of humour. I’m too scared to leave the house now.

I’ll try something else and report back – perhaps a few Terry Pratchett books or Monty Python for a bit of laughter therapy in the safety of my lounge.

#situational depression, #making happiness



[1] K.P. Wright et al. (2013). Entrainment of the human circadian clock to the natural light-dark cycle. Current Biology. Published online August 1, 2013. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2013.06.039. Print edition: September 7, 2013; Vol.184 #5 (p. 10)

Thursday, 26 May 2016

The misreporting of science in the media



"Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament". Image: Michelangelo (fresco in the Sistine Chapel).

The ever-humorous John Oliver tackles the problem of how scientific studies are portrayed in the media. Sometimes though, it isn't all their fault, research companies themselves can be guilty of initially misrepresenting findings by sensationalising and dumbing-down the science to make it "sell", then what follows can become a game of Chinese whispers. My favourite quote from John in this segment: "Coffee today is like God in the Old Testament, it will either save you or kill you depending on how much you believe in its magic powers."

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Doodle afternoon

Light as a feather, by Louise Thomas, May 2016.

I don't doodle enough. I suffer from lack of patience sometimes - it takes too long to get what's in my head out on paper, or the results aren't as I saw them in my mind's eye, so I'm easily put off. I'm constantly abandoning half-finished projects, in pursuit of other seemingly more interesting ones, suffering from what Alvin Toffler described as "overchoice” in Future Shock - a 1970s social critique that hasn't lost legitimacy (indeed the rate of technology change in the decades since Toffler's lament gives him kudos for his prescience). Besides, I could be wasting my time doodling, when I should be working on some fee-paying client's stuff. Which is a somewhat ironic train of thought, as I waste heaps of time mucking around reading friend's Facebook posts and looking at pictures of their food, or watching crime shows on TV and speculating on whodunit. All well and good in moderation, but I can't help but feel that it's all time when I could have been making myself better at something - when did the patience to follow my passions get sucked out of me by mass media distractions? 

I suspect that in the last few years I might have become a little bit boring and there have been times when I haven't been too keen on myself or on my life's achievement to date. Getting distracted by stuff helps me to be, well, distracted from myself. But not today. Today I carped the snot out of the diem, I finished up a client's web updates, mopped the disgusting kitchen floor, then had a doodle afternoon - very happy with the feather. Did this blog post. Now I'm going to make a cup of tea and work on my novel. There are good days and bad I guess. This day is a good one. I hope your's was as well.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Pareidolia? No way, that really is a smiley face

Image: Mars Global Surveyor (1999), NASA.


I had a great time at the Tour of the Planets conference over the weekend. Life being what it is (having to coach netball on the Saturday) meant I only arrived fifteen minutes before I was due to go on, but my Wandering planets and the seven-day week talk went off okay, even if I had to wing it a bit when discussing "Sunday" as I'd lost my notes for that particular slide. 

I had a bit of friendly heckling from a couple of astronomers sitting off to the side of the lecture hall (Richard Hall and Ian Cooper - you know who you are), who reminded me of the two old guys out of the Muppets, and I told them so at the time. I also had a native Greek speaker (George Moutzouris) sitting in the front row, when, as my luck would have it, my talk was littered with unpronounceable Greek names - which I proceeded to murder in traditional Kiwi fashion. But, far from being a problem, the audience participation in the talk only served to make it more interesting and dynamic, and at least I knew they were listening (unlike the chap right down the back who definitely had his eyes shut). Would I do it again? Absolutely! Getting people clapping after you talk is a powerful endorsement. I felt pretty good afterwards, especially when a few people cornered me at the tea table later and wanted copies of the slides.

I managed to catch a couple of talks after mine, I especially loved a talk by Richard Hall on the Martian Chronicles. At one point he was talking about pareidolia, a human need to see pattern in random data, the reason why we see faces in things like clouds and trees etc. He had a series of quite famous photos of the Martian surface which showed images that we have identified as having "things" in them - like a woman sitting on a rock, hearts, a finger, Mickey Mouse, WWII helmets, faces, etc. 
Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS file

He showed an image of Mars' Galle crater which I have no memory of ever seeing before. Made me smile, I can tell you. If there is a supreme being - they have a sense of humour.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Continental drift

Things I do when I should be writing my wandering planets speech.


The wandering planets and the seven-day week


A waning gibbous Moon, 15 April 2016 - Lower Hutt, NZ. Photo: Louise Thomas
Celestial observations to mark the passing of time have been used since the dawn of human kind. Early humans counted off the number of Suns to mark the days, followed by the changing phases of the Moon, which repeats approximately every 30 days, to mark longer periods, after all, it was easy to count the number of full or new moons that elapsed since or leading up to some big event. We observed seasons and the changing patterns of the Sun and star movements to mark the passing of a year, and from prehistory used this not only for migration, hunting and agricultural planning, but to mark how old our children were and to record and observe their transition into adulthood. These early observations of the world around and sky above of course laid the foundations for development of the calendar, that, with some variations throughout history, we would eventually use to divide the year into months, weeks and days. But what are the origins of the seven-day week as a division of time? It seems that this too, at least in ancient European and Mesopotamian cultures, was also rooted in astronomical observations.

I'll have the pleasure of giving a talk about the origins of the seven-day week and the significance of the order of the days at an upcoming astronomy conference on 13-15 May at Stonehenge Aotearoa in New Zealand's beautiful Wairarapa. Great dark skies and plenty of chance for observing if the weather holds - it's been a beautiful autumn so far, with plenty of opportunity for observing the planets. Jupiter in particular has been holding sway in the early evening in the Northern sky. The conference will be a great opportunity for me to show off my newly developed astrophotography skills.