Archive for the 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh Category

12. Star Blaze

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , , on January 6, 2010 by keithmansfield

“Johnny knew … he had the best seat in the house to watch the greatest explosion in the history of the solar system.” p. 309

Credit: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss

First there was the big bang. By definition, nothing can match the initial outpouring of energy that we believe created the universe, but even today there are some pretty cataclysmic explosions. A supernova (the Star Blaze of the new book) happens when a large star reaches the end of its life. Stars fight a constant battle, the outward pressure from the nuclear reactions at their hearts counterbalancing the gravitational collapse due to all that matter being in one place. When the nuclear fuel runs out, there can be only one winner.

In that moment, the light from a single star outshines the rest of the galaxy that contains it. When you realize our own Milky Way contains at least 100 billion suns, we begin to understand just how bright and powerful a supernova really is. The image here is an artist’s vision of a supernova, based on Chandra X-Ray Telescope observations. Subramanian Chandrasekhar, who did more than anyone to enhance our understanding of stars and black holes, was one of the greatest scientists of last century. The telescope’s named after him, and I’m honoured that he called me his friend. At the start of Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze, I give the great man a name check.

It’s because of Chandra that we know our own Sun won’t, at some future stage, become a supernova, as its mass is less than the Chandrasekhar Limit. It’s also because of him that we know we can treat some supernovae as “standard candles”, which help us measure the scale of the universe. And it’s because of these yardsticks that we’ve recently discovered that the rate of expansion of the universe is speeding up rather than slowing down, accelerated by something called dark energy, the same force that powers the Spirit of London’s engines.

Although a supernova marks the death of a particular star, it’s part of the continual process of rebirth in the universe. None of us – not even Earth itself – could exist without the first stars exploding. We’re all made of different types of atoms, the basic elemental building blocks of the universe. The big bang only produced the two lightest elements, hydrogen and helium, with a minuscule amount of lithium (the next one up). All the other, heavier elements have had to be made since and the place they are created is in the heart of stars. Only when those stars die, becoming supernovae, can those atoms be spread across space and come together to form such things as people and planets. Carl Sagan first said, “We are all made of starstuff.”

Today marks the end of the Twelve Days of Johnny Mackintosh, but only because tomorrow sees a new birth.

11. Titan

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , on January 5, 2010 by keithmansfield

“He landed on a rocky outcrop which looked out across a vast … plane.” p. 292

Credit: NASA/JPL/Michael Carroll

Only two days of Johnny Mackintosh to go. I’ve jumped to much further on in the book, taking us to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon and the most planet-like of all the solar system’s satellites. Apart from Earth, it’s the only other body we’ve found that has permanent liquid features on its surface – oceans, lakes and rivers. Only, on Titan, the surface liquid is thought to be complex hydrocarbons.

We know a reasonable amount about it because it’s the body furthest from Earth on which a spaceship has landed. On 14 January 2005, the Huygens probe (carried by its mother ship Cassini) descended through the moon’s thick orange atmosphere and touched down safely on Titan’s surface. The joint ESA/NASA/ASI mission (ASI is the Italian space agency) was an amazing feet, and there’s a rather odd video of the descent at the NASA site. It’s like watching the landing through a fish-eye lens and only really comes into its own towards the end of the movie, but worth sticking with it. It’s a shame that the probe wasn’t able to carry a more regular camera so everyone could have been captivated by extraordinary pictures from the surface of another world.

Titan’s unique as the only moon in the solar system with a notable atmosphere. It’s so thick that, with the lower gravity, humans could strap on wings and fly through the air, soaring over the plains like the one above. I started the Twelve Days of Johnny Mackintosh by saying the first place I’d visit, if I had my own spaceship, would be Saturn, but I’m sure I could take some time out from the majestic rings to have a bit of a play on the solar system’s second-largest moon.

It’s the final day of Johnny Mackintosh tomorrow and we’re going out with a bit of a bang.

10. New York City

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Buildings, New York with tags , , , , , , on January 4, 2010 by keithmansfield

“With the last of his strength he stumbled out and saw … exactly how high up he was – in front of the Empire State building”, p. 133

Anyone who knows me will realize it’s a great achievement to have kept myself out of these pictures so far. Sadly it couldn’t last. This is me, taken by me, on top of New York’s Rockefeller Center (the Top of the Rock).

For reason’s that will become clear if you read Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze, I’ve spent a fair amount of time writing the book from 70 floors up on the Rockefeller Center’s observation deck. Behind, I expect you’ll recognize the structure behind me. I’m holding up the cover of Johnny Mackintosh and the Spirit of London to compare London’s Gherkin with New York’s Empire State Building.

When in New York I always used to go to the top of the twin towers, often the Windows on the World bar in the North Tower (because you’d get the magnificent views to yourself and whoever you invited) but sometimes the South Tower because that way you’d get out on the roof. There’s something magical about being outside so high up. Even though I share Clara’s terror of heights, I never felt frightened there and the Rockefeller’s the same. Plus it has magnificent all-round views, including out over Central Park, though sadly yesterday’s Chrysler Building is largely blocked off. Another of my favourite New York roofs is the top of the Metropolitan Museum, watching the sunset over the city.

Needless to say, when Johnny’s in the big apple he doesn’t have much time for sightseeing…

9. The Chrysler Building

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Buildings, New York with tags , , , , , on January 3, 2010 by keithmansfield

“We’re in the Chrysler Building – Nymac owns the top few floors.” p. 118

My favourite building in London is obviously the Gherkin; in New York it’s the gorgeous Chrysler Building. I took these pictures on my phone when last there in summer 2009. Some action in Johnny Mackintosh: Star Blaze takes place inside the building but, try as I might, I was only able to spend time in the lobby.

To be sure I gave a reasonable description of the upper floors, it was fascinating to read about the building and its construction which briefly led this architectural wonder to become the world’s tallest (overtaking the Eiffel Tower), before its ugly nearby sister took over. The spire on top of the building was constructed in secret inside the main body, and only revealed and added on once a nearby building, also attempting to become the world’s biggest, was completed.

The art deco Chrysler building has beautiful gargoyles and its radiator grill top section. Nowadays, builders rarely leave room for either design or craftsmanship – I can’t fathom how some of London’s skyscrapers are allowed to be put up when their simply steel and glass cuboids. If something’s to dominate a city, it’s got to be worth looking at. As I sit at my desk writing this, I have the lights of the Gherkin in front to the left and those of the newer Bishopsgate tower on the right. Sadly, some very dull buildings are going up in between, but at least they won’t obscure the view.

8. Alnitak

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , on January 2, 2010 by keithmansfield

“Alnitak is a binary system that, from Earth, appears as the left-most star of Orion’s belt.” p.91

Credit: Digitized Sky Survey, ESA/ESO/NASA FITS Liberator; colour composite: Davide De Martin (Skyfactory)

For me, the star of the winter night sky is the constellation Orion. The three stars of its belt, coupled with the hunter’s sword, make it one of the most recognizable objects in the heavens. Alnitak, the leftmost star, is actually a binary system made up of two blue suns, one a supergiant and the other a large companion star. Both of these are known as “type O” by astronomers, meaning they emit large amounts of radiation and so produce especially strong stellar winds. Perhaps if we took yesterday’s solar sail there, it would fly especially well.

I like to imagine a sunset on a planet orbiting Alnitak, perhaps the beautiful blue blaze reflected in a calm ocean, a line leading all the way to the observers on the sea shore, with the many nearby nebulae appearing in the sky overhead.

Tomorrow we’re back to Earth with a vengeance – it’s off to New York!

7. Solar Sails

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on January 1, 2010 by keithmansfield

“scientists think you can fly a spaceship with the stellar wind, the particles a star gives off when it shines. If the sail’s big and light enough.” p. 83

Credit: Rick Sternbach, The Planetary Society

Happy New Year!

One of the biggest difficulties in spaceship propulsion is having to carry your fuel on board. The more mass your ship has, the more energy it needs to accelerate to faster and faster speeds. Scientists have come up with an ingenious solution – not carrying any fuel. Instead, a solar sailing ship has been proposed to surf the currents between the stars. When the Sun shines, it gives off a steady stream of subatomic particles called the stellar wind. Individually these are insignificant, but add up all their effects and they can become quite sizable.

When solar sails were first mooted, it was thought that this “radiation” pressure might be enough to fly a ship on its own. Nowadays, scientists calculate that we have to give a solar sailing ship a helping hand by firing lasers into the sail to push it along. The Planetary Society have been at the forefront of solar sail research and launched Cosmos 1 back in 2005 to demonstrate the theory. Sadly, a rocket failure meant the first ever space-bound sailing ship never reached orbit.

Undeterred, Lightsail is a new initiative from the same organization – they plan to launch the first prototype before the end of 2010 (and you can even send your name or a message into space with it). Lightsail 1 will be restricted to flights in Earth orbit, but ships 2 and 3 will be more ambitious.

I first came across the concept of solar sails in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s 1974 novel The Mote in God’s Eye. Nowadays, I remember little else about the book, but think it was trying to use the same “science in fiction” approach that I’ve attempted with Johnny Mackintosh. After you’ve all read Star Blaze and while you’re twiddling your thumbs waiting for me to finish the third instalment, you may want to take a look at it. Jerry Pournelle also wrote A Step Further Out, which was a manifesto for investing in space travel.

Tomorrow we’re taking one of those steps, travelling to a star in the constellation of Orion the Hunter.

6. The Battle of Trafalgar

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, History, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2009 by keithmansfield

“The British fleet would cut across the line of enemy ships … the name ‘Trafalgar’, the Spanish cape off which the battle would be fought, was sure to go down in history.” p. 73

Image:  Battle or Trafalgar, 21st October 1805 – Situation at 1pm (Nicholas Pocock, 1740-1821)

The twenty-first October, 1805 saw one of the landmark battles in naval history. At the moment of his greatest triumph, it also saw the death of Horatio Nelson. It’s the kind of thing people would find hard to believe if you were making a story up, but the truth can be as dramatic as fiction. I had a lovely day out at Greenwich and the National Maritime Museum making sure the details of the battle and Admiral Nelson were as accurate as possible.

Through history, it’s interesting to note the times when the great naval powers were different from the most powerful armies. I first remember it from my history lessons about the first Punic War. The Roman legions were masters on land; the Phoenicians from Carthage ruled the waves. There was an impasse until the Romans learned to sail and devised an ingenious means for turning a sea battle into something similar to land-based warfare. Later, in the second Punic War, the great Carthaginian general Hannibal took the fight to the Romans on land. He subjugated most of Italy, but hesitated when it came to sacking the great city of Rome and his moment was lost. When the Romans regrouped they showed Carthage no such mercy.

At the start of the nineteenth century, Napoleon was the master of continental Europe but Britain dominated the seas, following Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. In 1805 the French attempted an invasion of Britain via Ireland, but were defeated and forced back to Cadiz in southwest Spain. Villeneuve, the French admiral was reluctant to engage the British again, who blockaded him within the port. Finally, under orders from Napoleon, Villeneuve emerged, with a larger fleet of bigger, more powerful ships than Nelson’s. However, Nelson rewrote the rules of naval warfare, cutting through the combined French and Spanish lines rather than sailing parallel to them. While twenty-two of Villeneuve’s ships were taken or sunk, no British vessels were lost.

Tomorrow, there’s a picture of a completely different type of sailing ship.

5. Carina Nebula

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , , , , , on December 30, 2009 by keithmansfield

“move the First Fleet to the Keyhole Nebula . . . and the Third Fleet behind the great star Carinae itself”, p.70

Credit: NASA, Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI)

For day five of Johnny Mackintosh, I’m giving you an amazing photo from the Hubble Space Telescope. My hope is that it shows the enigmatic star, Eta Carinae and the Keyhole Nebula, all embedded within the wider Carina Nebula. Sadly I’m forced to confess that, unlike Johnny, I haven’t seen it close to so am not quite sure what’s meant to be where! The Hubble Heritage Team has a separate labelled map that looks a little different, so you might try to superimpose one over the other.

The Ancient Greeks called the stars “fixed” (while the word planet means “wanderer”), but the heavens aren’t always as unchanging as they believed. Eta Carinae is classed as a hypergiant, about the biggest star there is – around a hundred times bigger than our own Sun. Its behaviour is unusual for how quickly it changes .

We should be grateful that astronomers have left meticulous records of their observations for hundreds of years. In 1677, Edmund Halley (who the comet is named after) classified Eta Carinae as “fourth magnitude”. Fifty years on, astronomers were surprised to record it as much brighter than this – perhaps Halley had made a mistake?

Yet, over the next fifty years, the star dimmed back down to where Halley had categorized it. Then, in the early 1840s, Eta Carina flared suddenly to become the second brightest star in the sky after Sirius, despite being a thousand times further away – scientists wondered if they were watching a supernova, the great explosion when a star tears itself apart. Yet the star remains in place. It quickly faded and by the start of the twentieth century had become invisible to the naked eye.

Late in 1997 Eta Carinae brightened again, so we can now see it without the aid of telescopes. There are only a very few stars in all the Milky Way of comparable size and there’s a rule – the bigger the star, the faster it burns its fuel. This means there’s a chance this giant is near the very end of its life, so we think it is one of the best candidates for a supernova in our galaxy in the near future.

Tomorrow we’re travelling back in time, to the early nineteenth century. It’s one of my favourite sections of the book.

4. The Sun

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , on December 29, 2009 by keithmansfield

“A bloated star was in its death throes, having finally run out of usable fuel to keep shining … The commentary told Johnny he was watching Earth’s own Sun, somehow altered.” p. 24

Credit: EIT/SOHO Consortium, ESA/NASA

We’re a third of the way through the twelve days of Johnny Mackintosh and hitting the meat of the story – far more appetizing than those cold turkey sandwiches you’ve been eating. When my editor suggested “star blaze” to me for a title, this is the image that instantly sprang to mind. For me it simply oozes astonishing power and energy. Even though space is a vacuum that sound wave can’t cross, when I look at this I imagine a deep rumble that hasn’t stopped for five billion years and won’t for another five billion – all being well.

This raging furnace is our Sun. There’s a huge solar flare shooting out from the bottom left-hand corner. The Sun has an eleven year heartbeat, that we don’t understand but which means that the magnetic activity on its surface goes through eleven year cycles. In two to three years we’ll reach a maximum where big flares such as this will be more common, the aurora (the Northern and Southern Lights) will be become more spectacular and visible to more people and there may be times when your mobile phone stops working because of the effect on satellites in orbit. What this picture reminds me of is the incredible power of nature – of the awesome star blaze.

Tomorrow we’re taking several steps further out…

3. International Space Station

Posted in 12 Days of Johnny Mackintosh, Science, Space, star blaze with tags , , , , on December 28, 2009 by keithmansfield

“Three hundred and forty kilometres above Earth, they passed the space station windows so close that they could see the astronauts inside.” p. 9

Credit: ESA/NASA

It’s the third day of Johnny Mackintosh. If I had countless millions of pounds, I would spend around £15m of them on a trip to the International Space Station.

Several people have done this and Charles Simonyi has even been twice. He donated money to Oxford University where I work so we could have a Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. For a while this was Rickard Dawkins who wrote The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion. Nowadays it’s the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy. I went to his inaugural lecture in November and we chatted about football and space afterwards, making me think that Marcus would probably like Johnny Mackintosh.

The ISS is in what we call low Earth orbit, at an altitude of around 340 km (that’s just over 200 miles). When I was growing up, for a while the Americans had Skylab and then the Russians broke all sorts of records with Mir. From space, Earth has no borders and it’s great that a cooperative, international approach is being taken to much space exploration. If you want to see the space station, as it crosses the night sky, it’s easy. NASA have an applet at their Human Space Flight website which will tell you when the ISS will be visible, wherever you are in the world.

Tomorrow we’re off to the very heart of the solar system.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.