On science and cynicism

Category: Science and Astronomy (page 1 of 4)

A Radio Telescope for Ireland

When we think of astronomy, many of us imagine a lone figure outside in the cold and dark peering at a single star through a telescope. Astronomy – even at an amateur level – is much more interesting that that, as we work together with other astronomers to look not only at stars, but planets, moons, vast clouds of gas and dust, entire galaxies, clusters of stars, and more. This year, astronomy in Ireland is going to get even more exciting, as we will soon begin looking into the depths of space, back in time, to a point not long after the Universe came into existence. Continue reading

Blood Red Moon: Lunar Eclipse on September 28th

In the early hours of the morning of Monday, September 28th, our Moon will pass throw the shadow cast by Earth. This is known as a lunar eclipse, and this particular event will be the last in the current group of four eclipses, which have been taking place since April last year. Weather permitting, we in Ireland will be in a great position to see the eclipse from start to finish! Continue reading

Raspberry Pi Weather Station – Part 2

I’ve been working on a prototype for a Raspberry Pi weather station this last while and recently I made two new additions to the setup: a pressure sensor and an LCD screen.

The pressure sensor is the BMP180, which also gives a temperature reading. I used the Adafruit BMP libraries to control it (you can find the project on Github at There are plenty of guides online in getting this sensor set up, and it’s straightforward to do.

I was already using the Adafruit DHT library to use the temperature and humidity sensor and send data to Google Docs, so I just added in the imports and stuff to its Google upload script so that both the DHT and BMP stuff could be used in one file.

lcd_weather Continue reading

Raspberry Pi Weather Station

I like to play around with my Raspberry Pi and see what I can do with it. Recently I got it to stream video from a webcam and show it on the streaming website this will eventually become a home CCTV system. In the next week or two a signal generator I ordered will have arrived, and I’ll use the RPi to control it and encode Morse code onto the signal, which will then be sent to an amplifier, a filter, and finally an antenna to act as a low power QRSS radio beacon.

This week, however, I built a weather station. Continue reading

Rosetta, Philae, and the Importance of Comets

After months of silence from the Philae lander, it was today reported that the craft has finally awoken from a hibernation mode and is now transmitting data from the surface of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko, also known as Comet 67P. Philae travelled to the comet attached to the Rosetta orbiter, which still orbits the giant icy body. It was planned to undergo a smooth landing, which unfortunately didn’t happen: a couple of malfunctions meant that the lander ended up bouncing over the comet’s surface over the space of a few hours, before finally resting net to what is presumed to be a cliff-face. While Philae managed to send home some photos before shutting down, we still don’t know exactly where on the comet the lander is located.

The following is a piece I wrote that first appeared in in August 2014, prior to the arrival of the mission at the comet, where I talked about the Rosetta/Philae mission and the importance of comets. As Philae is now working again, it looks like the mission can continue, so I felt this is a good time to repost this one. Hope you like it!

Comet 67P as photographed by the Rosetta spacecraft.

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The Final Approach to Pluto

In January 2006 NASA launched a spacecraft that would spend the next nine and a half years sailing through the Solar System. It’s currently travelling at over 70,000km per hour, the fastest spacecraft ever launched. In one month, on July 14, New Horizons will make its closest approach to Pluto. Continue reading

The Nuclear Option

What do you think of when you hear the phrase ‘nuclear energy’? Maybe you think of Fukushima and Chernobyl. It could be the Cold War imagery of weapon tests that spring to mind for you. Or is it those giant cooling towers looming over the countryside? Maybe, like me, you see beyond the negatives and consider nuclear energy to be an opportunity.

I think nuclear energy gets a bad rap, largely because things like atomic weapons and power plant disasters are very often associated with it. But it’s not all bad, and thanks to modern understanding of nuclear physics and advancements in reactor technology, I believe it’s mostly good, and that nuclear energy could provide Ireland with a cheap, safe, and environmentally friendly power source. Continue reading

‘God of Gaps’ and the Big Bang

Yesterday, David Quinn of the Iona Institute wrote a piece for the Irish Catholic claiming that it was plausible that the Universe was created by God, and it is therefore a religious discussion rather than a scientific one. In the article he recognises the ‘God of Gaps’ idea (“if science can’t explain it yet, God did it”), and then proceeds to use that concept.

I spoke with Quinn on Twitter about some of the concepts he talked about, but it became even clearer that he wasn’t arguing against a scientific basis for the Big Bang, but instead he was arguing against what he thought was the Big Bang.

[tweet_embed id=451763207200579584]

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Using Computers for Astronomy

You’d be forgiven for thinking that an astronomer’s job consists of not much more than going outside at night, looking through a telescope, and thinking just how lovely the stars are. For many professional astronomers that’s how their interest began, but like any profession, there’s a lot more to it that we might think. Modern astronomy is a complex and varied affair; there are countless sub-fields in astronomy, and with the advancement of technology, astronomers now have access to practically endless data. As you can imagine, computer play a big part in astronomy, and indeed, most of an astronomer’s time will be spent in front of a computer rather than at a telescope.

I was playing with date from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey recently, and I wanted to write a little piece to show how computers can be used to easily and efficiently extract and analyse astronomical data, and how that data is then used to make observations about the Universe. Continue reading

Peer Review for Conspiracy Theorists

I listened to RTE’s Today with Sean O’Rourke today, which featured Declan Waugh (expert in misrepresenting research) and Gerry Byrne (science writer) discussing water fluoridation. It made me recall previous interviews I’ve watched and heard, and I wondered how long it would take for anti-fluoride campaigners to start demanding to know “who is paying this so-called Gerry Byrne, really??? Is he being paid by Big Pharma to lie to the public about fluoride??”

Comments like this are not uncommon: many campaigners believe that a company can pay a researcher to publish a paper in their favour in a journal. This isn’t really possible to do, and I cringe when I hear people embarrass themselves in the media by showing how they don’t know how academic research and peer review works. Moreover, when people start making claims that researchers are deliberately undertaking professional misconduct for financial reward, this can very possibly lead to defamation cases in the courts. Continue reading

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