Bumbler’s Guide: So You Think You Want a Telescope?

Ya probably don’t.

It’s not that nobody wants one, they’re awesome. They’re also the single biggest frustration and disappointment in astronomy in terms of expectation versus reality.

Ask yourself these questions – do you know the difference between a Newtonian, a Dobsonian and a Maksutov-Cassegrain? Do you even know the correct pronunciation of ‘Maksutov-Cassegrain’? Because I don’t! Can you work out the best useful magnification of your scope by using only the focal length, aperture and the size of your lens? Can you correctly set up and use an equatorial mount? Are you actually insane and want to spend frozen, late evenings gazing at what are mostly the same tiny pin-pricks of light only slightly magnified?

If you can answer all those questions, the last one positively, then a telescope might, actually be for you. In which case, what are you doing? Go get one! Have fun, go on! Fuck off!

Now, for the rest of you, here are the home truths.

Telescopes will baffle you with a variety of names, types and mounts but really they come in two categories: cheap and really fiddly or expensive and even fiddlier. They’re an actual pain in the arse. Most of the inexpensive ones you can get are going to be utter shite, in which case get yourself a set of decent 15×70 binoculars instead, they will be just as good if not better and about half the price.

I will say this with certainty if this is something you’re thinking of getting as a present for your kiddo because they’ve got some Saturn pyjamas and mentioned they like the Sun once. Don’t bother with a telescope. Especially if you can’t be arsed to do all the hard work, the setting up, the learning optics, the understanding seeing conditions, the positioning the telescope, the finding of the objects – if you are not interested in the hobby, I appreciate you trying to encourage your child but what you’re essentially doing is giving a kid who can’t drive a Ferrari because they like watching Formula 1 on the telly. Don’t do it.

Seriously, get them some binoculars. Maybe you can use them for birdwatching, planespotting, shipspotting or nosing on what the neighbours are up to. They have multiple functions and purposes, are easy to store when not in use, are portable and usually come with a strap to carry them about your neck so they’re technically hands-free. They’re so easy to use you just point your face at what you want to look at with them over your eyes. That’s the whole tutorial!  

Telescopes are big, conspicuous to the neighbours, unless you get a correcting lens everything you see in them is upside down anyway, they’re usually massive, hard to store and only conveniently wrap around someone’s neck when they say “I’m sorry, I’ve just nudged it, can you find Jupiter for me again?” for the 100th time.

Surely the views make it all worthwhile though? Nah, mate. The first time I looked at the Orion nebula through my binoculars I felt the awe of the overwhelming spectacle the universe was affording me. The first time I saw it through my telescope I tried to wipe the lens because I thought condensation had fogged it.

The Orion Nebula - red, white and blue filaments of light on a black background
This is not what the Orion Nebula looks like through a telescope. Credit: Astro.sin.

Those bright discs of planets, bright, burning balls of stars, those colourful nebulae and gorgeous swirling galaxies you’ve seen in magazines, on the BBC or on Reddit? All bullshit. Astrophotographers are the second best visual liars outside of whoever takes modelling shots of the Kardashians. There are many techniques that go into making a gorgeous astronomical photograph but the main one is stacking, which is when a composite image of something is made by taking hundreds or even thousands of images of the same thing and layering them to create the bold contrasts and colours. That is not to discredit the art, I appreciate it very much and think that some of the technique that goes into making great astrophotography is genius. It’s just not what you see through your telescope, with your eyes, in real time.

Westerlund 2 - a red, yellow and blue nebula on a black background
You won’t be able to point a telescope at the sky and see something like this. This image of Westerlund 2 has been processed to fuck! Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team

Through the actual eyepiece it all looks a lot less defined, a lot dimmer and a lot less colourful.

Don’t get it twisted, I ain’t about to tell you this means telescopes are shit. They’re not. Just don’t expect to point your scope at Mars and see two Martians shagging at the peak of Olympus Mons, with the presumably male Martian giving you a knowing thumbs up. It ain’t happening. I’ve been able to make out the bands of colour on Jupiter, I am hoping to make out the massive storm, the Great Red Spot, at some point, but I can’t see it yet. I’ve seen the rings of Saturn, they’re amazing, but I can’t see the Cassini division, the gap between the rings, yet. Using a telescope takes a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of patience and a lot of learning. They are not as point and shoot as binoculars, and what you see will not look like the pictures.

The orange of the Great Red Spot against the pale beige of Jupiter
Again, you won’t see images like this through a telescope. This image was made using processed data from the Galileo spacecraft! Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kevin M. Gill CC BY 2.0.

Then there’s actually finding stuff in the sky. Half of telescopy is throwing your arms up in the air and saying “Where the fuck’s that gone now!?” and if you’re not ready for that you’re going to have a bad time.

Many telescopes come with what are called finder scopes but you still have to know what you’re looking at or for, and where it is. If you don’t, good luck. Yeah, you can buy incredibly expensive scopes where you just tap in the numbers and it points at the right thing, and can even track it, but if you’re rich enough that you’d get one of those on a whim just stop reading, fuck off and do it and throw a few grand at We Lack Discipline while you’re burning money. Most people will not get one of those, they will get cold hands, fiddly controls and a whole lot of looking at the stuff they don’t care to see.

Me, I enjoy it. I go out with my scope and a couple of apps to help me know what’s about, I point at this, I find that, I look for this and then eventually I get bored of knowing and point at the empty spaces to see what’s there. That’s the charm of it to me. But I’m not twelve years old with a PlayStation at home. A space kid can get turned off real quick if you’re not prepared to make your observing an event. I’d think of it more like fishing, set aside a few hours, take some snacks and supplies, take some flasks of hot drink and make an evening of it.

So are you still actually determined to get a telescope? If you’re still going to do that after all my warnings, after everything I have said then do me a massive favour. Either do extensive research on what is available within your budget, consider the space it will take up and where you will store it, learn the types of telescopes and lenses and how they may work for you or, let me give you the easy mode.

  1. A minimum 130p Dobsonian telescope.
  2. 3 x lenses of different sizes (one large, e.g. 25-35mm, one medium e.g. 9-12.5mm and one small e.g. 4-6mm)
  3. A decent 2X Barlow lens (Celestron do some decent ones for around £30-40 but if you’re a real peasant like me the SvBony is about £20 on Amazon or £10 on AliExpress, though that comes with the China shipping wait).

I’ve had a go on a few different scopes now and I think the Dobby is the best for punch and accessibility. SkyWatcher do some cheap models that aren’t the best, but they’re affordable, portable (relatively) and will do the job. The Dobsonian is amazing because it has a very simple mount. The base spins around in a circle on the horizontal axis, the telescope is held on a hinge that moves it up and down on the vertical axis. It’s what’s known as a type of altazimuth mount. The mount design makes it easy to have a portable, easy to use, large aperture scope that is accessible in use for beginners.

The 130 number indicates the aperture size in millimetres – in this case 130 mm or close to 5 inches. The bigger the aperture the more light you can capture, and telescopes are all about getting that light. The more you can take in the clearer the object will be and the further you will be able to see. This is resolution.

With lenses, the higher the number of millimetres the less zoomed out things will be, the lower the number the more zoomed in. You might think that means you want the smallest number possible but hold your horses, there. For one, as mentioned, telescopes are a fiddly ball-ache. Using a lower magnification to find what you want, centring it in your eyepiece, then putting the higher magnification eyepiece in, then focussing, etc. makes this process a lot easier. Plus there are things for which you want the field of view. My 25 mm eyepiece fits the entire Pleiades cluster in it, my 9 mm doesn’t. If I want to look at the whole thing, I need that 25 mm. For two, your scope is going to have a highest useful magnification. Exceed that and everything is going to look dim and grainy.

The Pleiades - several blue stars against a black backdrop
The Pleiades don’t look like this through a telescope, either – you’ll see a lot of bluish-white dots. Still pretty, but don’t get your hopes up! Credit: Dylan O’Donnell.

Those eyepieces also come in a variety of types (I told you this was a pain in the arse), the most affordable and available of which are Plossl, Kellner and Orthoscopic. Manufacturer, optics quality and cost will all factor in but a beginner with a starter kit of three Plossl isn’t going to know the difference.

Finally, the Barlow lens is a clever little bastard of an eyepiece that acts as an attachment between the telescope and your standard eyepieces, increasing their magnification. A 2X Barlow Lens, then, would effectively double your magnification. If you got 32 mm, 12.5 mm and 6 mm eyepieces you could use your Barlow to effectively transform them into a 16 mm, 6.25 mm and 3 mm equivalent.

The article is remarkably negative, and there’s a good reason for that. Go on eBay right now, type ‘telescope’ into the box, look at every one and see how many have been “used once then chucked in the loft.” Look at reviews for them on Amazon and see how many people say “Not what I was expecting, it took ages to get it set up, then it was so fiddly and I didn’t get to see anything.” People see those ‘National Geographic’ branded telescopes for £20 in the Argos sale and think it’ll be great but it turns out they’re rubbish and have no better magnification than a decent set of binoculars. They come with garbage lenses and mirrors, crappy eyepieces and everything looks blurred.

Taking up the telescope as part of your amateur astronomy hobby is like being into juggling and deciding to set fire to the clubs you juggle with. Eventually, with practice, it will be incredibly impressive. Until you learn, though, you’ll just get burned. If you’re not willing to deal with that pain, don’t bother.

The Moon

Everyone has that overly needy friend, the one who desperately clings to you because they’re so socially inept that they need the protection of another individual. I should know, he’s me. At the same time, that friend absorbs a constant stream of meteorite strikes that actually protect the other friend, but they still think you’re annoying even though they love you – in a way. That’s the Moon. I’m the Moon.

It will probably be in your first evening of celestial voyeurism that you end up having a look at our pale orb companion. I tried not to cover it early on because, well, it’s just there. You’ve seen it, dozens of times. Maybe not close up, but you know what it’s like. It’s a grey-white lump that just, sort of, sits about. It’s like that uncle you have who was chock full of potential but never made anything of himself (again, how my niece will end up seeing me…). You take it for granted, and for good reason, it never did anything! At the same time when you get deep into the backstory, you learn a lot and, like the object itself, the history is rather fascinating.

The Moon is Earth’s ‘satellite’, and that’s a piece of stuff orbiting a planet or minor planet. Strictly speaking the Moon is a natural satellite, to distinguish it from all the other pieces of space junk we have orbiting our planet that we put there. Those would be artificial satellites, some of which are quite useful, e.g. the International Space Station and communications or navigational satellites, and some of which are just astronaut shit. If they orbit us, they’re satellites.

Nobody quite knows how the Moon came to be there. We know it is made out of Earth-stuff, so it was likely once a part of our planet. It is speculated that sometime in Earth’s early history our planet was struck by another large object (estimated to be about the size of Venus) causing us to shed a huge weight that ended up orbiting us at a distance of about a quarter of a million miles. If you’ve ever had an appendectomy you are kindred spirits with mother Earth, although I hope the doctor you had was more tactful with the removal of your appendix than just throwing a huge mass at you in the blind hope it would knock your appendix into orbit.

It is tidally locked with us, so the face of the Moon that you look at is always the same one. It does not rotate relative to the Earth. So a new Moon (when you can’t see it in the sky) is what happens when the Earth is behind the Moon relative to the Sun. All the light hits the Moon’s backside and reflects back at the Sun, so we can’t see it. In this regard, the Moon is permanently ‘mooning’ the Sun. It’s always got its arse pointed at it. A full Moon happens when the Earth is between the Moon and Sun, the light that gets around the Earth reflects off the Moon making it very, very bright. Despite this the Moon has a low albedo. That doesn’t mean it was born without pigment, giving it pale skin and red eyes. Albedo is the measure of how reflective a celestial body is, given as a number between 0 and 1. 0 is entirely non-reflective whilst 1 would mean the object reflects 100% of the sun (or local star’s) light. The Moon has an average albedo of 0.12. Comparatively, Enceladus, the moon of Saturn, has an average albedo of 0.99.

One thing that stargazers will note about the Moon is that it is a bit like your loud friend at a party. It’s perfectly fine until its nonsense starts drowning out everything else. That it overcomes its low albedo to do this is very impressive. Essentially it overcomes its low albedo by two means. The first is that it is close to us; the second is that its albedo changes depending on its phase. So a full Moon reflects more light than a quarter Moon.  During those periods of the month in which the Moon is prominent and bright, you should curb your expectations of what you can see. I have mentioned light pollution before and maybe didn’t give the Moon due respect in quite what a filthy, disgusting, light polluting chunk of discarded Earth-waste it can be.

That’s okay, though. Bright objects, particularly those on the opposite side of the sky to the Moon, are still visible. Thankfully, the Moon itself is also quite interesting to study.

Stare are an old person’s face long enough and you’ll see there are spots, blemishes, pits, craters all telling stories? No face is ever boring. They may be handsome, attractive or even drop-dead gorgeous, or they could be denizen fledglings of the ugly tree who fell and hit, if not every, at least multiple branches. Either way they are never boring to look at, as their face is a unique imprint of craters, crevices, lines and wrinkles. That is the Moon. Geologically, it’s on the explicit side of the internet – it’s got a lot going on.

Look at it through your binoculars and you will notice one of two things. If it is a full Moon you will notice that it is so bright as to be uncomfortable to look at, like snow on a sunny day. Well done, lesson learned, try again with a filter, or during a different phase. Do that and you will notice the Moon is awash with blemishes. It has small patches of virgin dust, contrasted with shadows, craters and dark patches. Every single one tells a story.

I don’t know any of these stories. But I can see huge craters that tell obvious stories of harsh impacts. It tells tales of meteorites that, maybe, could have struck the Earth causing history-altering implications, but not, because of our silvery friend. I see patches of grey and white, indicating difference and change. Nothing stays the same in this universe. Maybe it takes a long time to change, but it changes all the same. I see many smaller craters, the everyday stresses and strains of being a moon. Not quite as significant as the huge, deep, newer craters, but still from solid impacts, impacts that would have had a lasting effect. When you think about it, the Moon is a good metaphor.

Little wonder then that, culturally, it’s a muse and concubine. The silvery disc has sparked metaphor, whimsy and romantic notions in human beings for as long as we’ve been recording history and, likely, longer.

We have always related to her. I say ‘her’ because Western classical tradition contrasts the male Sun (Helios – Greek or Sol – Roman) with the female Moon (Selene or Luna).

If you understand the disregard for the feminine those cultures held you can understand it. Our potent Sun, giver of life and energy contrasted with the our impotent Moon, who only casts the reflected light of our solar, masculine magnificence and who, frankly, does little but make our nights better. In that regard, ancient astronomy and sexism have common ground – foolish disregard.

The Moon, an otherwise seemingly impotent presence, determines our tidal forces. She pulls our seas to-and-fro, causing a cyclic reaction that may soon hold the key to energy generation on an oil-lacking, damp, miserable and geologically inert island such as ours here in the UK. She provides regularity, a consistency, an efficacy to our planet that would otherwise be lacking if relying on the sun alone. We may not count our years by her, but she is our measure of months. She helps divide our time, so we may better schedule our agriculture, hence why we have harvest Moons. What is more, like any good woman in a relationship that takes her for granted, she will one day leave.

The Moon is moving away from Earth, at a rate of about four centimetres per year. This happens because the Moon gives the Earth the bulge! Phwoar! No, seriously, the tidal bulge that is created on our planet by its interaction with the moon is causing it. It’s a lot of astrophysics to do with tidal forces and gravity but the basic gist of it is the tidal bulge tries to pull the Moon and speed up its orbit, whilst the Moon pulls back and slows down the Earth’s rotation. The upshot of this interaction is the Moon gets further from us, and our days get longer. One day she will likely leave us entirely. The thought that our distant relatives will one day gaze up at the sky (during their – due to the gravitational effects of having no Moon – slightly longer nights) and see no Moon gives me a good reason to enjoy it whilst it can be seen.

It would take an estimated fifty billion years for the Moon to reach its maximum orbit, thus reaching the point where it could gain freedom from Earth. At that point, though, both the Moon and the Earth will be evaporate and space-ash having been consumed in the final, angry, existential whims of that fearful fireball, our sun. Not to make you worried about your Greatx108 grandchildren, but our Sun only has about another 4.5 billion years left in it. Regardless, whilst her influence may never fully diminish, she will get further away, she will grow more distant.

She can be boorish and bossy. Sometimes she stops us seeing others who we might like to see and sometimes she casts such a bright light over our lives that she seems overbearing. Like all great broken loves, though, one day humans – or the species evolved from us – will gaze at the sky and tell stories of the one who got away. The one who once so captured our imaginations that we wrote songs and poems about her, yearned for her, even made her a goddess, before we had even reached out our grubby, unworthy hands and touched her fair surface. When we did, at last, reach her, it was a magnificent crowning glory. The awakening, the coming of age, of an adolescent species once glued to its home left touching naught but itself.

One day we will pine for the love who once made a glistening romantic dream of our otherwise bland, dark nights. So when she stops you seeing other things in the sky, remember not to take her for granted. Our pale love, the pock-skinned protector, carrier of light to our otherwise black nights, sweet Selene, will not be so close to us forever.

Orion

There are warriors, kings, beasts and myths in our skies. If that kind of thing is your bag then I urge you to delve into Ancient Egyptian religion, because the whole thing is basically one elaborate star chart, it’s glorious. We in the so-called ‘Western World’, though, inherited most of ours from the Greeks, via the Romans.

Allow me to interrupt a chat about stuff in space to give a brief summary of history. The Etruscans were an Ancient Italian people with a culture similar to the Greeks, versus the Latins who were another group of Italian people about which we know less than we know of the Etruscans. What we know, however, is these Latins got somewhat bored with being little more than an eclectic group of migrant farmers merged into one village and fancied themselves a bit of culture so they either merged with, and/or murdered the Etruscans and nicked their business. The people would eventually grow their small village into a Kingdom and become known as Romans. From here they pretty much dominated (at various points, the borders changed,) the world from Britain and Portugal to the West, Iraq in the East, as far south as the Sahara and as far north as about the top of the Netherlands. They controlled, basically, the entire Mediterranean basin.

The thing is they did not forget their roots easily. They were big on history, big on document, big on legend, big on ancestor worship and respect. If they thought it made them who they were they respected it. So much so that their greatest ever enemy, the Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca, had statues built in his honour to respect such a worthy adversary.

The Romans were a war-y sort of people, though. They were not prone to sentiment, pretension or over-culturalising their achievements. That is until they nicked Greece. By the time the Romans had brought this Hellenic (a fancy word for Ancient Greece) world within its grasp it morphed into something different. This culture of titans, of vast columns, huge temples, poetry and plays, humble pomp and favourable circumstance appealed to the sort of Roman who looked for ways to aggrandise himself – and no, I’m not being sexist here, Rome was being sexist. Women didn’t even have proper names for fuck’s sake – without sacrificing his pietas, his piety, his devotion to his nation, to selfishness.

The Greeks were very keen astrologers. It was a habit of superstition they had nabbed, themselves, from the Egyptians, but one they made at least semi-scientific. Of course they were still a bit rubbish, they didn’t have telescopes or binoculars available to be delivered to their door like we have now. That didn’t stop them creating the Antikythera device, which seems for all archaeological investigation to be the oldest known mechanical astronomical computer.

Most of the good images of the actual Antikythera mechanism cost like £150, unless you fancy getting sued. We don’t, so have this cool video of a Lego Antikythera mechanism instead.

To cut a very long, thousands of years old story short, we inherit most of our planet, star and comet names from this Graeco-Roman culture, and most importantly we inherited their celestial observations and tales by means of what we call ‘constellations’.

Look up at the sky with the naked eye and they actually seem to be a thing but by the time you’ve pointed your binos at them you’ll realise what you’re looking at is someone else’s ghost in a fluttering curtain, or a branch tapping on the window. They’re a nonsense with modern observation equipment, for the most part. While there are bright points, you’d have to be very learned to know what you’re looking at through a small aperture, and very disciplined not to get distracted by all the, frankly, more interesting stuff behind it.

Look, constellations aren’t boring, they tend to be arbitrary collections of some of the most interesting junk to look at in our universe. It’s just, they’re not ‘real’ and I, personally, have a problem with that. At best they are useful for a little bit of celestial navigation, at worst they’re a meaningless distraction, a confusing and arbitrary grouping that doesn’t help anyone learn the sky.

Except one.

Orion.

Orion is globally recognisable. He’s a tough one, too. He is most visible in winter, whether you are in the northern or southern hemisphere.

His mythology is classic Greekness. He’s the son of a Gorgon and a God who is also massive, for some reason. He offended Gaia so much by suggesting he would kill every animal on the planet that she tried to kill him with a scorpion. He’s also a massive rapist, but the similarity between Greek mythological figures and Hollywood producers is they’re all rapists. There are few demigods who aren’t born of some rape or deceit, it’s utterly deplorable but this was thousands of years ago before they had properly invented cups of tea and zip-up trouser flies, so what do you expect?

Why do I let Orion off the hook as a pointless constellation? One: because of his prominence. He can be seen in the northern and southern hemisphere and so can be used as a sky-navigation aid for everyone. Two: he’s got two very cool celestial things in him and one as a nearby companion.

One of Orion’s shoulders (I won’t tell you which one, let’s see if you can figure it out) is pointed out by the large red blobby star of Betelgeuse. Betelgeuse is cool for a few reasons. Firstly, it gave its name to a visually awesome and very entertaining Tim Burton spook flick starring Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and Winona Ryder. I had the action figures when I was a kid, I loved that movie, even though I was far too young to understand the connotations within it. It was visually slick, cool, spookstuff. Secondly it is the home star system of both Ford Prefect and Zaphod Beeblebrox from the Hitchhikers franchise, so this star is, so far, killing it.

The best thing, though? The coolest thing that will leave you hanging and begging in celestial time? It could go supernova at any minute. Betelgeuse is huge. If you find a scale diagram of our solar system, Betelgeuse’s surface is – if you place its centre at our sun – somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. It’s big, but it isn’t hot. It is about 60% as hot as the sun. This combination of size and temperature classifies Betelgeuse as a ‘red supergiant’. This is considered to be a star burning at the end of its life cycle. The combination of size and temperature means that the end of its life cycle is definitely a bang, not a whimper.

This artist’s impression shows the supergiant star Betelgeuse as it was revealed thanks to different state-of-the-art techniques on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), which allowed two independent teams of astronomers to obtain the sharpest ever views of the supergiant star Betelgeuse. They show that the star has a vast plume of gas almost as large as our Solar System and a gigantic bubble boiling on its surface. These discoveries provide important clues to help explain how these mammoths shed material at such a tremendous rate.

Credit:

ESO/L. Calçada
This artist’s impression shows the supergiant star Betelgeuse as it was revealed thanks to different state-of-the-art techniques on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), which allowed two independent teams of astronomers to obtain the sharpest ever views of the supergiant star Betelgeuse. They show that the star has a vast plume of gas almost as large as our Solar System and a gigantic bubble boiling on its surface. These discoveries provide important clues to help explain how these mammoths shed material at such a tremendous rate.

Credit:ESO/L. Calçada

Betelgeuse could, within our lifetimes (finger’s crossed – unless it leads to some catastrophic cosmic cataclysm somehow) go supernova. That would mean it would explode and distribute its star-stuff in a cloud, becoming a nursery of new star and/or planet formation. If it happens, the supernova would be visible during the day from Earth, in fact it will be about as bright as a full-Moon. It would shine in our skies as a visible reminder that no matter how indifferent, violent and pyrotechnic our universe, it builds again, and provides beauty while doing it.

Then there’s Orion’s belt. Comprised of the stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Without a doubt one of the most famous shapes in the sky but also famous in modern times for being linked with all sorts of ancient alien conspiracies on account of the ‘fact’ that the Great Pyramids at Giza appear to be laid out in a similar formation to them. If there was any deliberate plan to mimic those stars in the layout of the pyramids it is my opinion that is was done in reverence to the star formation itself, and not, as has been suggested by some people not of sound mind, to teleport the bodies of dead pharaohs back to their true home in space.

The three stars in Orion's belt, shining blue on a black background.
The three stars of Orion’s belt. Credit: Jean-Daniel Pauget CC BY 2.0.

Hanging below Orion’s belt is what many people too polite to call it Orion’s Dick call Orion’s Sword. This is not usually highlighted as an official part of the constellation but receives a lot of focus for a very good reason. Look closely, even with the naked eye, and you’ll see a smallish star surrounded by a foggy, cloudy region. This is M42 – or to give it its non-nerdy name, the Orion Nebula.

The blue and purple of the Orion Nebula on a black background.
The Orion Nebula, a star nursery. Credit: Bryan Goff.

A nebula (as I explained in the first part of this guide) is a region of space full of dust and gas – usually as a result of a supernova – in which star and planet formation can take place. It’s like a nursery for stars and solar systems. Orion’s is so visible for one simple reason – it’s bloody close to us! It’s only 1,300 light years away from our solar system and is possibly the closest nebulous region to Earth. I was totally ignorant of it when I first started taking my binoculars to Orion for this article so I was dead chuffed to see his cloudy little bell-end and find out what it was.

My final point of interest is Orion’s left foot – Rigel. It is opposite Betelgeuse within the constellation and opposite Betelgeuse in colour. Where Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, Rigel is a blue supergiant. The supergiant part is the same as for ‘geuse, Rigel is an old star and has spent most of its fuel. It’s blue, though, because it is still ridiculously hot. It’s a good rule of thumb for stars – the redder it is, the colder it is, the bluer it is the hotter it is. Betelgeuse’s surface temperature is somewhere around 3,250°C, our Sun is around 5,500°C, Rigel is about 12,000°C! About 20 times as massive as our sun, too, that makes Rigel one giant damn furnace and a nice thing to appreciate when you look at it.

I also mentioned that Orion has a nearby friend that is quite amazing – that’s Sirius. Sirius will get an entry all of its own. For now I hope when you’re looking up on a crisp November or December evening, and you see the figure of the hunter/warrior posing in the sky you’ll remember my lesson today. Constellations are bollocks. They’re meaningless. Who wants to praise the figure of some rapey ancient Greek tosser? What’s cooler than Orion? The star in his shoulder that’s giant, red and could explode any second, the ludicrous conspiracies regarding his belt, the massive blue furnace at his feet and the fact that his bell-end is literally a spunky star nursery.

Bumbler’s Guide to Astronomy 2

RULE 2: SPACE IS CONFUSINGLY BIG, AND REALISING THIS IS LIKELY TO CHANGE YOU.

I wouldn’t usually begin with an introduction. I am the kind of person who believes you should confidently integrate and flow your words such that they do not, necessarily, need subheadings. The thing is, gazing at space is weird, and makes you think and feel things that could be alien to you.

If you followed my first guide, you’ve got some binoculars, you’re all excited and you’re thinking “Karl Anthony, what do we do next!?” Well, this is why you need an introduction. Because what you do next, before even bringing those lenses to your eyes, is you prepare.

What you are about to see can, indeed should, change you. If it doesn’t, good for you, I can’t fault that. For everyone else, it’s okay. Let me talk you through it.

Your first look

I don’t know what level of astronerd you are, but if you’re reading and following this guide sincerely, you’re very inexperienced. That means you may have seen a relatively clear night sky and nothing else.

A clear night sky is a revelation. I’m blessed where I am, in a town on the South-East, with minimal light pollution and gorgeous celestial vistas only a ten minute walk away. Unforgettable perspective-changers are a ten-minute drive.

If you come from areas similar to me, your first look at the sky through binoculars will be a shock. If you come from a light-polluted inner city and have never seen a clear sky – book an appointment with a therapist, your first look through binoculars will change you forever.

I had a clear night the other night and decided to try and see some sights through my binoculars.

10x50s, the beginner ones I recommended last time, had the sky seem a dazzling array; it was Blackpool illuminations multiplied by the universe. I knew there was a lot I, unaided, couldn’t see, because of lights, interference etc. Human eyes, like their minds, are rubbish at long-distance foresight and the difference between my back yard – where I did my observations – and ten minutes up the road is stark enough to know there’s a lot I don’t see.

Here’s the thing, I could look at an isolated, bright star in the sky, pick it up in my binoculars and completely lose sight of what I was looking at. One star in an isolated blackness becomes merely a brighter speck in a polka dot sheet.

I want to be more funny and irreverent, like last time. But I can’t. Because once I switched over to my 15x70s I had one of those existential moments. I had a realisation that I am part of something massive and incomprehensible to the meagre human brain. We’re running a DOS based system in a Windows 10 universe.

The distance between me and what I was looking at is not worth considering. At motorway speeds it would probably take a person millions, if not billions of years to get there, and we’re not capable of conceiving of lengths of time or distance like that. I wasn’t even seeing that thing as it is now. Whatever stream of photons hit my eye left that land millions or billions of years ago.  If there was someone in a solar system around that distant star looking back they may be seeing Ediacaran Earth while I gazed at their distant evolutionary past.

It’s too big. But I’m a biologist. So after dropping my binoculars from this life-changing experience, a thought hit me like a truck hits a fox on the motorway. We’ve been to the Moon and we’ve dropped remote-controlled cars on Mars. We’ve got a probe in the process of leaving our Sun’s influence. We know there are big potatoes out there in the universe, and yet we’re still here on Earth arguing about small fries.

I’ll admit I’m a polemic political firebrand, but there’s a clarity and an objectivity you feel when you’ve gazed into the eyes of heaven itself. Our nonsense, what Steve down the road is up to, that silly rear-end car accident, who will win Strictly, Trump,  Brexit, the EU, Russia, the Middle-East, Israel-Palestine, China, Africa, the pollution in the oceans, the melting of our ice caps. I charge you, pull those 10x50s to your eyes. I won’t tell you forget it. Please, gaze upon that sky. You will understand that the dot-spotted void you once thought it was is actually a blinding blanket of possibility.

Our planet is precious. It is statistically likely that somewhere in that field of lights, that celestial show of incandescence, is another group of people looking back at us. Maybe they are lost, frightened, caught in the midst of a dilemma between exploring the stars and the possibilities beyond or closeting themselves up on their own hunk of rock and make-believing their own nonsense is in some way important. We should set an example. We should show them, one planet’s needs are not important. Once life reaches a certain point of intelligence, of perspective, it is duty-bound to protect its mother planet but also to  disseminate that same message throughout the cosmos. It is all very confusing and contradictory, but we are so precious because we mean so little out there. Everything we know, love and need is on a dust mote hurling through the endless everything.

When you gaze, unknowingly, through your binoculars, you’re not looking for a particular galaxy, a particular planet, a particular star, you’re just scanning a field of infinity, don’t just focus on what you see. Think. Feel. What do you think? How do you feel?

Somewhere in the 14 billion year long process of his universe existing, matter, for whatever reason, saw fit to amalgamate and conglomerate, it decided to come together – by accident – to form a molecule that decided to form more molecules like it that decided to engage in a competition to see who was fitter. That fitness found myriad ways of being; bigger, smaller, stronger, weaker, slower, faster – it was situational, but adaptation was slow. That molecule needed a new way, and it found one thing that seemed to work – Smarter. Smarter meant the cold could steal a coat to keep warm, the ill could be healed, the strong could defend the weak and, eventually, they could look upon all that had made them, they could gaze upon their constituent processes in the cosmos and figure them out. Smart meant the universe could, for the first time, consider itself through borrowed eyes. Most importantly, though, it could perspectivise. It could attempt to consider itself from its smallest to its largest.

It would, of course, be confused. The instinct of that part of the cosmos that was ”living” would think that keeping itself alive, advantaging itself, was the best thing it could do. In some ways it would be right, but that selfishness would also lead to conflict. Just as an infant finds it hard to detach from its mother, so would this organism find it hard to realise that its experience spreads beyond its family, its town, its county, its country, its planet. In many ways it failed to get past that.

 It wasn’t good at it, to start with, but it got better. It got better because it kept looking up.

The Ignorant and Bumbling Beginner’s Guide to Looking at things in Space, from Earth, With Eyes

Confused about stargazing? Not sure where to start? Karl Anthony Mercer explains stargazing from a beginner’s perspective.

I am Karl Anthony Mercer and what do I know about astronomy, stargazing and all things cosmic? Nothing. Nada. Zero. Fuck all!

Well, that’s not strictly speaking true. I know a few things. Space is huge. Not huge like Wembley, your aunty Jean’s house, an aircraft hangar or the fee Real Madrid would pay for a man who can kick quite well. No, it’s huge as in everything we’ve known and an awful lot of stuff we don’t know fits inside it, with room to spare. It’s also, for the purposes of perspective “up”. There’s a Moon in it, I know that. Oh and there’s a Sun.

Okay, so I’ll admit, I don’t know nothing. I’ve just never been a ‘”space” person. I’ve always enjoyed space, I always liked the idea of it. I just never got into it. I was always zoos and Attenborough, not planetariums and Patrick Moore.

So if you’re an experienced skygawker this guide is unlikely to give you any meaningful advice. If anything, I hope it gives you a few moments of wistful nostalgia as you remember starting out. If not, well then I hope you can at least laugh at the dickhead. What I do want you to do is consider that friend who always wanted to get into it, but didn’t know where to start. Think of sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters, nieces, nephews and all those other assorted folk. This guide is for them, from one complete novice, just starting out to, hopefully, countless others.

It all starts by opening your eyes and looking up. There, now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Or did you look directly at that incredibly bright orangey-reddy-yellow thing? If you did then it probably was quite hard, and you should heed this warning, do not look directly into that thing ever again!

RULE 1: DO NOT LOOK DIRECTLY AT THE SUN, NO MATTER HOW PRETTY IT IS!

Looking up at a daytime sky can be pretty dull. The most interesting celestial body in it is the Sun and without some equipment with some fancy filters it is well beyond my grade. I can’t look at that. Let’s assume you’re out at night. Let’s also assume it’s a clear night, because otherwise all you’ll see is fluffy flying water.

There’s a lot you can see, right? You can likely see the Moon, unless it’s in a new Moon phase, when the Earth decides the old one was out of date and gets the new model with the improved crater detail and better WiFi. There will be many twinkling pin-pricks of light, some bigger than others. They could be aliens, fireflies or pranksters in a stealth hot air balloon shining a small torch. What is most likely is that some of these are planets (lumps of stuff that orbit stars), some are stars (like a gas hob only huge, in space and nuclear) and some may even be galaxies (collections of the two former things) or nebulae (clouds of gas and dust from when stars decide they’re too hot and need to explode). Some of these stars are in formations. You may even recognise some of these “constellations” – Orion is quite a prominent one in the winter northern hemisphere sky. There’s the Big Dipper. You can even make some up if you don’t learn the official names.

If you are lucky you may see a meteor (a lump of stuff that enters Earth’s atmosphere, usually burning up) streak the sky, if you are unlucky you may have that meteor fall on top of you as a meteorite (when a lump of that stuff doesn’t burn up, and hits the planet). There’s lots to see up in the sky, a lot of get acquainted with, like I still haven’t.

I bet you’re like me though. It’s not a proper hobby until you’ve spent silly money on a piece of equipment to do the hobby with. I know! Let’s buy a telescope! Then I’ll be able to see the disappointment in the eyes of aliens in far off galaxies as they look back at us and wonder quite how we’re making such a hash of custodianship of a planet.

The telescope market is baffling, and operating them even more so. There’s Newtonians, Dobsonians, reflectors, refractors. What’s a “three-mirror anastigmat”? It sounds like an eye-disease you get from the strain of looking at recursive copies of yourself in three reflecting mirrors. No, this will not do.

I get the feeling telescopes are much better once you’re better acquainted with the sky, further entrenched in the hobby and able to try them out somewhere first so you can be taught what you’re doing with them. If only there was something like a rudimentary telescope you could hold up to your face – even better, if there were two, such that you could obtain a magnified stereoscopic view that works better with human, binocular vision.

Oh my, there’s my “Eureka!” moment! I’ve just invented the binoculelescope! Wait? They already exist? They’re called binoculars? Well I suppose I’ll just get some of those. I can’t win one, can I?  

Maybe that’s not so bad. You see, this whole thing started because my niece, who is five, has been getting into this whole space lark. I think they have been learning about it in school and she thinks it is cool. I’m a supportive Uncle and I wanted to encourage her and sought advice from people in the know (some friends, some acquaintances, some random searches via the internet) for the best way to go about it. Binoculars were always mentioned.

So I ordered her and myself a pair of incredibly inexpensive 10×50 binoculars. As I understand it binoculars label themselves with numbers, the first being the magnification (so 10x magnification) the second being the measure, in millimetres, of the diameter of the objective lens. That’s the big one at the end, and it is especially important in astronomical binoculars because the bigger that is, the more light can get in (in this case, 50 mm).

I know next to nothing about optics, so that’s about as much information I can give on the matter. What I did hear is that 10×50 are great for starters, but 15x70s will get you much more detail. For true nerdbags, higher magnifications and objectives exist, although a tripod is recommended.

From my experience I would say be very careful buying online at places like eBay, Amazon, or particularly if you are the adventurous type to use a Wish or AliExpress. There are many, many bad traders out there who want to sell you junk for more than it’s worth. I saw a lot of fanciful claims of magnification and clarity that were pure lies. In fact, AliExpress was hilarious for it, because many of their binoculars have amazing model names like 15-25×100. They were 8-10x50s. They just had a model name that indicated they were better. All pure lies. So be careful, Google them, there are plenty of reviews and if you find some that are wholly lacking reviews you should probably avoid them.

The ones I obtained for my niece and I were Auriol 10x50s. In the UK these are sold by Lidl supermarkets from time to time, for around £15. I found them on eBay for that plus postage and packing.

I wasn’t expecting much, so I was very surprised when they arrived that their image was sharp and clear, they were easy to setup and focus, came with a bag, necessary straps etc. They’re of hefty weight, but feel a little rubber-plasticky, but what do you expect for under £20? For just getting started I think they will do fine.

But remember what I said earlier? It’s not a real hobby until you’ve spent silly money on it? I also bought myself a pair of second hand Helios “Stellar” 15x70s for around £50. This was probably an unnecessary extravagance for a beginner but partly it was because I was scared of missing out on some amazing sights with the 10x50s, and partly it was so I could have a bigger, more impressive “grown-up” pair to impress my niece with.

These were actually in quite remarkable shape for being a second hand pair. The seller had warned of the rubber grip on the focus wheel being loose, but that’s nothing a little glue won’t fix. Other than that their optics are clear, the lenses seem unscratched. Looking through them the magnification is a world apart from the 10x of the other set, although the field of view is clearly more limited. I was expecting these things from the research I had done. In all I am quite pleased.

I hope you enjoyed this small guide to why you should definitely get cheap binoculars if you’re just looking at getting started with amateur astronomy. Next time I hope to tell you all about what I learned from looking at random stuff in the sky.

Unless the weather doesn’t clear up, in which case it’ll be clouds.

Why Mars, anyway?

Some people love Mars. I am not one of them.

If you ask me what my favourite planet is, it’s definitely Saturn. It’s massive and floaty and has a huge set of gorgeous rings. Also, it swallowed an entire satellite, which is metal as fuck. Has Mars ever done that? Thought not. (Although landing on Mars is still pretty hard. Plenty of spacecraft have smashed onto its surface.)

A picture of a potato with a sad face
Not Mars. Credit: banger1977 on Flickr.

On the other hand, Mars is a rusty potato. It looks like an orange dot in the sky, and when you look at it through binoculars, it looks like a slightly bigger orange dot. At some point some Italian guy thought he saw lines on Mars, the English-speaking world decided that these were definitely canals built by aliens, and the whole thing turned out to be an optical illusion caused by looking through shitty tiny telescopes. I’m still convinced we spend so much time looking for life on Mars because the sci-fi books and the fucking canali convinced several generations of scientists that the best place to look for life was the cold, dusty potato and not, I don’t know, not one but two icy moons that might have gigantic undersea oceans.

Half the sphere of Europa, an icy white moon with red streaks over its surface
Europa is one of the four biggest moons of Jupiter and might harbour life in an undersea ocean. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute.

An icy white moon
Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, has a thick icy shell that might harbour an undersea ocean. The moon is warm on the inside and plumes from the ocean occasionally splurt out through the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh, well. Dusty potato it is.

While I was trying to figure out why the dusty potato is so fascinating to people, I learned some really interesting things, and decided to plop them in this post.

I should stress that for my day job I am a historian of science. I talk to people to figure out how they felt and what they knew about science when they were doing their research (spoiler alert: I have talked to literal professors who emphasise that compared to astronomy in 2020, back in the 1970s we pretty much knew shit all about things in space compared to what we know today). I don’t work backwards from the present day, which is what I’m going to do in this post. Working backwards from the present day and assuming that people in the past had the same knowledge and beliefs we do today is called “presentism”, and it’s widely regarded by historians as a Very Bad Thing.

However, this is not my day job. In my day job I have to write history accurately, say nice things about Mars because everyone loves it, and avoid swearing. This is We Lack Discipline, where it’s okay to say fuck, slag off the Red Planet and make weird historical arguments for the sake of explaining why Mars is more interesting than it might look.

So, why is Mars interesting anyway?

People have been looking at Mars for at least 4,000 years – we have records from Ancient Egypt! So we know that people have been interested in it for thousands of years, because the sky is actually pretty cool. (Also, people had to work a lot harder to amuse themselves before radio, cinemas and TV came along.)

Traditionally, ancient civilisations identified the Red Planet with fire or war because it’s…well, red. In ancient Mesopotamia, the Sumerians and later the Babylonians identified Mars with their god of war, Nergal. The Greeks cribbed their astronomy from the Babylonians and decided that Mars was actually their war god, Ares. The Romans cribbed even more from the Greeks and decided that the red dot in the sky was stella Maris, the star of Mars (Ares’ Roman counterpart). That’s how the Red Planet got its name.

Ancient astronomers noticed that Mars has what’s now called “apparent retrograde motion” – in simpler words, it goes backwards. Most Ancient Greek and Roman astronomers thought that everything revolved around the Earth – after all, the Sun and the Moon look like they go around the Earth. In their minds, so should everything else. So Mars going backward was a real problem for them.

A yellow circle representing Mars moves against a black sky
The retrograde motion of Mars in 2020. Credit: Tomruen.

In the 3rd century BCE, they thought they’d solved it. A mathematician called Apollonius of Perga worked out that you could describe the backwards motion in terms of deferents and epicycles – planets doing complicated, loop-the-loop orbits around Earth. 500 years later, the astronomer Ptolemy refined Apollonius’s ideas and presented them in a book called the Almagest, which basically translates as “the greatest thing”. To be fair, the Almagest was pretty great – it influenced Western astronomy for 14 centuries! It turned out that epicycles worked really well, too…at least for a while.

Some small black circles looping around a big black circle
A basic diagram of the system of deferents and epicycles. The deferent is the big circle in the middle. The epicycles are the little circles on the edge of the big circle. When you trace out the path of the epicycle, you end up with a loop-the-loop motion.

By the 16th century, astronomers could measure the position of Mars more accurately, but matching up Ptolemy’s theories with their observations caused problems. To explain why planets seemed to move faster or slower at certain times of the year, they had to add in an “equant” – an imaginary point where planets looked like they had a uniform speed. Nicolaus Copernicus was so irritated by the equant that it was probably one of the reasons he developed a model where all planets revolved around the Sun! He still kept the epicycles, though.

You’d think the problems stopped there, right? Wrong. Planets going loop-the-loop around the Sun in circles…did not actually solve that many of the problems. At all. To get rid of the epicycles would take an even bigger change.

About half a century after Copernicus, a German astronomer called Johannes Kepler was poring over the observations of Mars made by Tycho Brahe. At the time, these were the most accurate observations in the Western world – like getting stuff from the best telescopes in the world today.

The observations of Mars didn’t match up with Copernicus’s epicycles, and Kepler had to add the equant back in. Even then, Copernicus’s system didn’t work.

Was Kepler going to have to go back to geocentrism – to the Sun orbiting the Earth? For fancy maths reasons, you can just keep adding epicycles and equants to an orbit and you’ll eventually be able to approximate it. You just had to add on more and more. And to people who liked geocentrism, that might have made sense. But Kepler was also a passionate heliocentrist – he was really, really invested in the idea of the Earth orbiting the Sun. As a young student, he’d defended it on both theoretical and religious grounds. His pre-existing preferences shaped what he did and the science that came after him.

So he kept the Earth orbiting the Sun, and got rid of equants, epicycles and circular orbits.

What was his big idea?

Ellipses.

It turns out that when you argue that planets move around in ellipses rather than looping circles, it works much better. (To be fair, they’re not very stretched-out ellipses. They are nearly circular. Easy mistake to make when telescopes have basically only just been invented.) It took a while for Kepler’s ideas to catch on, but they got a huge boost from astronomical observations and from Kepler’s ideas being incorporated into one of the most popular textbooks of the time.

Yeah, maybe Mars is just a tiny dusty potato, but it’s a tiny dusty potato that changed the world and led to us re-evaluating our place in the Universe – literally!

Space: What’s the F***ing Point?!

I get it, you’re too wrapped up in work, school, what’s on TV, that latest videogame and you wonder quite what the hell the interest in space is. It’s massive, it’s far away and it seems it barely interacts with you at all.

It has got to the stage where even something as big, bright, beautiful and obvious as the bloody moon needs to have marketing terms applied to it to make people give a shit. It isn’t enough to actually see a moon, just have a look, and appreciate it and the differences. No, we need to advertise the SuperWolf Strawberry Milkshake Blood Moon – claiming it’s named after some aboriginal hunter-gatherer tradition and soon it’ll be brought to you by McDonalds.

An image of the full Moon
Is this a blue Moon? A green Moon? A supermoon? A not-so-super-actually-quite-meh Moon? Whatever! It’s cool!

I was one of you, too. I didn’t care about looking at space. Sure, I’d spot a few things whilst out and about, here and there. I just didn’t really care. It was a conversation with Osnat about what I could potentially contribute to Popular Astronomy magazine that got me into it. What I wanted to do, in a hobby full of old, male, pervy nerds throwing stupid sums of money around on telescopes and lenses that cost hundreds or thousands of pounds, was tell the regular, 13-45 year old, person, no matter who they are, on the street how they could enjoy space for free, or for little money.

There is no doubt that a good set of binoculars, or even a decent telescope, can show you a lot more than you can ever see with the naked eye. But people, especially people who live in the light-polluted urban sprawl, will be surprised the difference a dark sky can make.

With the naked eye at least four of the planets in our solar system are easily visible (Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.) There are a potentially another three in Mercury, Uranus and Neptune but they are incredibly faint or appear at stupid-bastard-o-clock.

With the naked eye I have seen the Orion Nebula (on the sword off Orion’s Belt…Kind of look where his knob should be for what looks like a star with a spunky mist around it).

You can, obviously, see the moon but if you see a moon at less-than-full you may even catch some Earthshine. This is where light reflected off the Earth illuminates the dark area of the Moon slightly. You can see the galactic core of the Milky Way – the cloudy, dense, fuzzy chasm across the sky that gives our galaxy its name.

You can see clusters, like the star nursery of The Pleiades – otherwise known as the Seven Sisters, an amazing sight that looks like a tiny version of the Big Dipper.

Several bluish-white stars on a black background
The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters. There are way more than seven of them.

You can see amazing stars like the dazzling rainbow jewel of Sirius (actually two stars, but you can’t see the separation with the naked eye) and the massive, red Betelgeuse which caused a lot of buzz in 2019/2020 as speculation rose about whether or not it would go supernova.

You can even see our nearest galactic neighbour, Andromeda – a galaxy ours loves so much they are rapidly moving together for a kiss in about 4.5 billion years’ time.

The Andromeda Galaxy - an elliptical galaxy, tilted on its side on a black background. Purple and red swirls of dust are on the outer edges of the galaxy. The galactic centre is a murky white.
The Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbour (and getting closer all the time).

That’s just the highlights of the obvious stuff, as well. There are other nebulae, clusters, galaxies, objects, comets, meteors, satellites, random shiny objects, stuff that seems to appear and disappear at will and possibly aliens – although there have been, as yet, zero confirmed alien sightings by amateur astronomers – all visible with the naked-eye.

So why not go observing? What’s stopping you? This ain’t trainspotting, people! You don’t have to don your anorak and notebook and go nerd it up. You can take a bivvy tent and a few cans of beer and sit on top of a hill chilling with your mates. Although I am obliged to suggest you drink responsibly, it is at your own risk if you choose not to drink responsibly and end up inventing your own constellations shaped like cocks. If you’re a real criminal scumbag you could do something else that We Lack Discipline is legally obliged to suggest they do not recommend or endorse and take some dope, do some magic mushrooms and sit down a really dark beach gazing up at the stars and listening to the gentle hush of waves tripping yourself all the way to another damn galaxy.

That’s the other great thing about observing. Do it your way. Do what you bloody well want. If you want to hang around a bunch of 50-year-olds with red lamps and notebooks, spouting coordinates and magnitude numbers like it means something, you do it. If you want to get tipsy, screw on a beach and then gaze in post-cum clarity at a few constellations do that as well. The Earth is big, space is bigger and there’s plenty of room for everyone at its table.

Why, though? Well to me that’s obvious. Whether you want to believe it or not we’re connected to everything out there. I’m sure the dinosaurs at one point thought “What’s the point in space? I just want to eat, shit and bang!” and then a giant hunk of rock from space turned the Yucatan into a bowl and I bet they wished they had the ability to gaze up and go “Ooh! What the fuck’s that! Maybe we should prepare for this!?”

The sun sometimes flares, messing with your mobile signals and wi-fi. The moon is sometimes dazzling white and sometimes red and that’s because stuff is happening. Comets appear and disappear as transient visitors and one day one of them may eviscerate itself in our atmosphere and you’ll be a lot less scared if you know it’s coming. We are inhabitants of this universe and it’s good to know what’s going on.

Space doesn’t belong to anyone. No nation owns it, no school owns it, no elite group owns it. Sure the stuff up there has names and designations, but so do the birds of paradise and if you saw them without knowing their Latin binomial you’d still think they were fucking beautiful.

I’m a working class guy with a middle-class brain. I never loved school, I didn’t appreciate the rules and the structure didn’t fit me, but the stuff – the things you can learn – that is something I loved. I reckon most other people are the same. There’s a stigma where I come from for being clever. You get called a boffin, a nerd, you get picked on and bullied, as you get older you get accused of being above your station or forgetting where you came from. The more you know the more alienated you feel and yet, because you’re like me and grew up with ‘fuck’ as more of a form of punctuation than a word, you don’t fit in with the people who do like it and do care about it.

I’m here to say “fuck that!” I want to see MDMA fuelled stargazing beach parties. I want to see kids being grumpy in the streets because they were up past midnight gazing at the stars with mum and dad. I want to see hoody-donning delinquents on housing estates saying “Mate, that ain’t a star you fucking idiot – that’s Jupiter!” I want to make it acceptable for people to know stuff.

Knowledge is power, always has been and always will be. Amongst humans, that’s as permanent a fixture as the stars and planets shining, orbiting, twinkling, shooting, exploding and rotating in our skies. There was a time when every beer-swilling, nut-scratching, blue-collar family dreamed of their kids growing up to be astronauts. I’m bringing those days back.

What’s the point in space? It doesn’t need one, just like you. Space is just fucking cool, fight me.

Top Ten Venus Memes

It’s been floating around on the internet for a couple of days, and floating around even longer around astronomers, but it’s official: there’s weird shit on Venus and, on Earth, that weird shit is mostly made by things that are alive.

Does that mean there are aliens on Venus? No, not quite. The weird shit could be made by chemistry we don’t know about. We’re totally rooting for aliens, though.

Of course, this is a mind-blowing announcement, made during the hell year when we’re in the middle of a pandemic, infections are spiking, and various parts of the world are actually on fire right now. So how do we parse the news of weird shit on Venus? Through memes, of course. And we at We Lack Discipline are here to curate the finest of them for your viewing pleasure.

(Also, content is king and the way the internet works encourages more content, always, but that’s another story…)

Honourable Mention

An image of a smiling white man with wild brown hair. He is gesturing with his hands. The bottom text reads "aliens".

This guy. This fucking guy. If it exists, he thinks aliens did it. Pyramids? Aliens. Religion? Aliens. Kettles? You guessed it, aliens. He gets his one tolerable moment when we actually get hyped about aliens and weird Venusian shit.

10: Happy Little Microbes

This is a nice meme to ease into the alien hype. Bonus points for Bob Ross.

9: Disturbing Microbes on Venus

Poor, poor Venusian microbes. They already live in clouds of sulfuric acid. Now the Earthlings are on to them.

8: The Search for Life on…Venus?

After centuries of Mars hogging the spotlight, is Venus going to get some attention? We hope so.

7: New Information

Everyone is interested in phosphine right now.

6: And That Means…

Venus is everywhere. Sorry, no getting away from it!

5: Hello, Am Phosphine

The not-so-new chemical on the block didn’t quite come out of nowhere, but it sure seems like it.

4: The Meme Trifecta

Enjoy this trifecta of fresh, home-made memes. Mmm.

3: We Found Phosphine on Venus…

…and this is what the headlines did.

2: Friendship Ended With Mars

Now Venus is everyone’s best friend. Awww.

1: This is Fine

This is it. The best meme, as judged by a definite expert and not just a lazy grad student bashing out a listicle in between conference sessions…oh wait. No, I am not an expert. But this is definitely the meme I liked best. Life on Venus, if it exists, is totally just chilling out.

Hints of Life on Venus?


So news leaked yesterday that a huge study by universities in the US and the UK, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cardiff University and the University of Manchester – as well as others – has found what are being called ‘biosignatures’ on Venus.

Today is when the embargo on the story is officially up, so no doubt your BBC News is going to be all like “Are Aliens Social Distancing Correctly on Venus?” The Mirror are going to run a story about “Venusian Tories Put Biscuits on Expenses!” and the Mail Online will have various stories including “Will Venusians Affect Your Property Prices?”, “Venusian Air – The Cure for Cancer?” and of course “Incompetent Government Ruins Everything, Venusian Immigrants to Blame!”

Don’t let me rain on this parade, this is damn big news, the biggest news since evidence of water on Mars and of way more significance to how we think of life forming in the universe outside of our little wet marble.

Here’s a Curious Idiot™ rundown.

The ‘biosignatures’ that they have found evidence for is a gas called phosphine, or hydrogen phosphide, chemical formula PH3. Here on Earth we only know two ways it is produced; by micro-organisms living without oxygen, or by us in a lab.

How did they see a particular gas on a planet so far away? Well, I haven’t read the paper yet, but I’d guess with some form of spectroscopy. Planets, particularly those with an atmosphere, have an aura around them, a faint glow of light passing through that atmosphere. Some of the substances in the atmosphere will absorb different colours of light. We can analyse the data from that light to find what colours are present and what colours are absent. Those different colours, or the lack of them, act as signatures that can be used to figure out what gases are in that atmosphere. See the diagram for some pretty pictures helping to explain it.

A diagram with 4 panels explaining spectroscopy.

1) Light is a form of 'electromagetic radiation'. There is a picture of several blocks of light, going from red to yellow to orange to green to blue to purple. Visible light exists on a spectrum. Like a rainbow. The different colours indicate different 'wavelengths' of light.

2) When light hits something one of a few things can happen.

Red arrows (representing ways of light) hit a blue block of matter. One ray reflects off, one arrow passes through (transmission), one arrow gets stuck in the block (absorption), and one arrow passes through wonkily (scattering).

3) Scientists can then shoot light at lots of different things.

(picture of a red line going into a black circle and blue and purple lines coming out the other end)

And analyse the 'wavelengths' they see off the object in a graph like this...(a picture of a graph with lots of peaks and dips; this is the 'fingerprint' of a substance)

4) Those graphs become a signature, or fingerprint, for particular chemicals, elements or compounds.

A red line goes into the atmosphere (in light blue) of a planet (dark blue). It comes out the other side as green, blue, indigo and purple lines.

We can then use massive telescopes to see what wavelengths are absorbed by planets' atmospheres and see what they are made of - all the way from Earth!
Our lovely, wonderful, EXCLUSIVE We Lack Discipline diagram, with only the finest application of MS Paint!

After the first group to spot it picked their jaws up off the floor they swiftly asked others to verify it, because a discovery like this requires a massive amount of checking and verification before having a press conference to tell people there may be alien life on Venus.

But there also might not be. We have to be open to the possibility that this could all be a very coincidental cock-up. Mistakes happen and while rare, mistakes can happen multiple times in a row. There is a possibility this could be a mistake but from what I’ve snooped out so far I think this has been looked at behind the scenes, by many people, for a long time now. If it is a mistake it is the single biggest coincidental balls-up in science history.

There is a possibility that Venus’ incredibly hostile conditions are a perfect storm for creating a novel physical or chemical process that can produce phosphine in its atmosphere. For me not to get over-excited this is what I believe until we have more information. Venus is a remarkably hostile place. Imagine the Christian images of hell and then make it even more inhospitable, that’s Venus. We’re talking horizon-to-horizon grim and hostile volcanic rock, and an atmosphere around 100 times as dense as Earth’s that is acidic. Even though Venus spins on its axis very slowly, making one day on Venus equivalent to about 240 Earth days and leaving one side baking in the sun for longer, it does not have a hot side and a cold side. This is because its thick acid atmosphere is one massive, swirling, superheated vortex giving a nearly universal surface temperature of about 470°C. Venus is a crazy, rocky, acid oven. It is possible that something going on there that doesn’t happen here on Earth or anywhere else we’ve observed in the universe is causing the production of phosphine.

Of course the evidence we have collected here on Earth makes it a very likely explanation that Venus somehow houses some microscopic life that is breathing, respiring, in its volatile atmosphere and making this phosphine. If this is discovered to be true it would be the single most significant event in astronomical and biological history, and this is me saying that. They could tell me they found video of Elvis planting explosive in the World Trade Centre while George W. Bush filmed it and laughed and I’d just shrug and say that’s not unexpected. I don’t get excited by discoveries all that much because they often tend to only lead to decades of more questions. In this case, though, those questions are the hugest we would have ever asked and the answers could change the way we perceive life and our place in the universe. I’ve been waiting for this shit!

The only disappointing outcome is if this turns out to be a trick of the telescope or a mistake in the reading or a data anomaly. If it turns out there is phosphine but it’s a process and not life making it that’s still a remarkable discovery. In terms of geology it would teach us an unbelievable amount but I’m not rocks guy, I’m a life guy. In terms of biology it knocks our Earthbound ideas out of the park and gives us an idea that building blocks of life can and will be created in the most hostile of environments. It gives us hints as to how a volatile, volcanic early Earth may have found itself a perfect nursery for life. It teaches us that hurricanes, volcanoes, methane oceans, ethanol skies and champagne-shitting-supernovas can all find a way to become such a nursery.

If it turns out that there are micro-organisms on Venus – then fuck the flowery words, no exaggeration, no bullshit. Life changes. Not our lives. Life itself and our idea of it.

There are going to be a lot of crackpot stories doing the rounds. The initial story was leaked and then mistakes were made, in my opinion, with the handling after that. Rather than firmly take control there and then, the story was taken down. Not before being spread on places such as twitter and reddit, however. Now instead of smart, sensible people controlling the story there are going to be conspiracy nutters linking Venusian aliens with Sandy Hook and suggesting Trump was elected to fight them. I want to stress that most of what you will read will be bollocks.

So look, be excited. This is an incredible development whatever it means. Just don’t let the snivelling, shit-for-brains, gutter-snipes in the press or on internet boards and Twitter make you believe bullshit.

Remember the Curious Idiot™ ethos – The only thing we truly know is we don’t, actually, know anything much at all.

The stark facts are:

  1. We have detected gas on Venus that should only be there if there’s life, or a laboratory.
  2. We’re pretty sure there’s no laboratory.
  3. If that gas is there but there is no life it is being made by exciting new processes.
  4. If the gas is there and there is life it is probably tiny, airborne microbes.
  5. Nobody, of any gender or sexuality, will be Captain-Kirking it up and shagging any hot Venusians any time soon.
  6. Even if there were hot Venusians, if we went to Venus to try to shag them we’d be hard pressed to figure out if you would be cooked alive or choked on acid atmosphere first.
  7. Even if you did, in that short amount of time before you died, manage to have sex with a Venusian, you still wouldn’t be Captain-Kirking it, because you’d be in tremendous pain and dying – thus you couldn’t cum in peace.