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Comment Re:Watch a movie of V404 Cyg in the optical (Score 2) 58

My apologies. I should have marked the position of the variable star. I've just modified the web page so that the initial picture indicates the target -- click on that initial picture to see the movie. Thanks for pointing that out.

since you're doing such extensive image processing anyway, why not correct for the blooming of bright stars and make them all the same size and shape?

Well, in part, because I'm an astronomer, not a cinematographer, so my ability to make nice movies is rather limited. I could claim that there's some pedagogical value in seeing the ugly nature of the real scientific images, but, actually, that would just be covering up for the fact that I'm lazy.

Comment Re:Watch a movie of V404 Cyg in the optical (Score 4, Interesting) 58

Good idea. We astronomers try to eliminate such possibilities by measuring OTHER stars nearby and comparing their variations to those of the target. In this case, nearby stars didn't vary over the night, so we can rule out clouds in the Earth's atmosphere, which would have affected them all.

Now, it's possible that a cloud near the star itself could have something to do with this variation .... but the timescale for motions of such big objects is almost always far longer than a few hours. So, it's more likely that the variations are due to changes in the luminosity of the accretion disk around the black hole than to the motions of a big obscuring cloud in this case.

Comment Watch a movie of V404 Cyg in the optical (Score 4, Informative) 58

I've been using our university's observatory to take images of V404 Cyg for the past week. On Jun 23/24, the star underwent a particularly crazy series of variations: over a period of six hours, it fell to just 5 percent of its initial brightness, then recovered almost to its starting point.

I made an animated GIF showing the star's changes over this period. You can see it on my observing log for the the night:

That page also includes my full dataset, and pointers to additional reading.

The star is currently bright enough -- mag 11-14 -- to be studied easily with small telescopes. Anyone interested in joining the effort should start with the American Association of Variable Star Observers (AAVSO) -- go to their campaign page at

Comment Link to the full article, freely available ... (Score 4, Informative) 21

... thanks to arXiv:

This event is VERY interesting and unusual because the microlensing event was observed from two very different places: on Earth, and from the Spitzer Space Telescope, which is many millions of km away from the Earth. Gravitational lensing occurs when a background star and a lensing star line up exactly in the same direction, as seen from an observer. Because Spitzer was so far away, it saw the lensing star line up with the background star first; then, as the lensing star moved in its orbit around the center of the Milky Way, the lensing star eventually lined up with the background star as seen from Earth, about 18 days later.

This lag in time between two widely separated observers seeing a lensing event will help us to figure out exactly how the two stars involved in the event were moving, and where they are, and other properties. Since most telescopes are located on Earth, in basically the same place, we almost never get this extra information.

Rah, rah, Spitzer! Rah, rah, OGLE!

Comment We just covered this paper in our class last week (Score 2) 43

I'm co-teaching a graduate course on exoplanets, and we talked about this paper in one of our meetings last week. Here's the link to our discussion of "spectroscopy of exoplanet atmospheres:"

You can read all our materials at


Comment Link to the full article, freely available (Score 5, Informative) 199

The summary has a link to a paywalled article (silly Ethan). The full article is freely available to all on the arXiv preprint server:

I'm peripherally involved with the supernova field, though I study only the nearby examples. There has been for years the understanding that IF a difference should arise between the nearby events that we can study well, and the distant events which appear dimly and vaguely, AND if we did not realize that such a difference existed, THEN we could reach incorrect conclusions.

Scientists in the field have worried about this for years. It's not a sudden new realization.

It's very pleasant to see that a space telescope -- SWIFT -- which was built to study one type of object (gamma ray bursts) has turned out to provide vital information on a different type (supernovae). Since it is in space, it can detect ultraviolet light, and so show us that some nearby supernovae emit different amounts of ultraviolet light, even though they appear similar in the optical region. This UV difference hints at differences in chemical composition between supernovae, which may indeed be significant when we try to study very distant events with other telescopes.

Fortunately, light from those distant events is redshifted into the optical regime, so we can use very large ground-based telescopes to see the same UV light and compare it to the nearby events.

It's a very interesting field to follow: things change on timescales of 3-5 years. And yes, we are more aware of the uncertainties in the business than some news articles might imply.

Comment Re:Um, they're going to be awful this year (Score 2) 31

When the Moon is full, it rises at sunset and sets at sunrise. Each day, the Moon rises (and sets) about one hour later. So, 2 or 3 days after the full Moon, the Moon will rise 2 or 3 hours after sunset, and set 2 or 3 hours after sunrise.

Which means that, after midnight, the Moon will be high in the sky, ruining the view of the Perseids. It will not "set several hours before dawn."

In short, the response above is wrong.

Comment False alarm -- just a normal background source (Score 5, Informative) 129

The team which announced the event has now figured out that it wasn't interesting after all:

NUMBER: 16336
SUBJECT: Swift trigger 600114 is not an outbursting X-ray source
DATE: 14/05/28 07:57:12 GMT
FROM: Kim Page at U.of Leicester

K.L. Page, P.A. Evans (U. Leicester), D.N. Burrows (PSU), V. D'Elia (ASDC) and A. Maselli (INAF-IASFPA) report on behalf of the Swift-XRT team:

We have re-analysed the prompt XRT data on Swift trigger 600114 (GCN Circ. 16332), taking advantage of the event data.

The initial count rate given in GCN Circ. 16332 was based on raw data from the full field of view, without X-ray event detection, and therefore may have been affected by other sources in M31, as well as background hot pixels. Analysis of the event data (not fully available at the time of the initial circular) shows the count rate of the X-ray source identified in GCN Circ. 16332 to have been 0.065 +/- 0.012 count s^-1, consistent with the previous observations of this source [see the 1SXPS catalogue (Evans et al. 2014):

We therefore do not believe this source to be in outburst. Instead, it was a serendipitous constant source in the field of view of a BAT subthreshold trigger.

This circular is an official product of the Swift-XRT team.

Better luck next time.

Comment For reference, here's one of the current systems (Score 4, Informative) 38

If you're interested in the current state of the art, read this article from the Publications of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific (April 2013). It describes the hardware and software used by the Pan-STARRS team to detect asteroids automatically in data taken with their 1.8-meter telescope on Hawaii and its 1.4-gigapixel CCD camera.

Comment A page with technical details (Score 5, Informative) 107

I wrote up a short summary of the observational details for one of my classes -- you can find it at

You can also follow a nice summary of the latest results by following Don Alexander's thread on the Cosmoquest forum:

Comment Re:Neutrinos? (Score 2) 69

First, this is a type Ia supernova, which produces fewer neutrinos and a much smaller gravitational wave signal than a core-collapse supernova.

Second, any supernova in a galaxy beyond the Local Group (the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, and some smaller companions) is too far to produce enough neutrinos or gravitational waves to be detected by our current instruments.


Comment Re:I teach physics in a workshop, not lecture ... (Score 1) 212

The "expensive AV stuff" is 2 projectors per room (we need to project onto opposite walls because students sitting at tables aren't all facing in the same direction), times 7 workshop rooms. 14 projectors cost a lot to maintain.

Yes, we've completely eliminated traditional labs from the introductory physics sequence.

There is a small amount of data on how students did on the FCI before and after the switch, but not enough to be significant. I don't think that the FCI is a very good way to measure the knowledge of a student in physics, by the way.

When I said "move away from the median student", I mean "teach at a level which is far from that appropriate for the median student." In a lecture, one can choose to go faster or deeper, knowing that one may leave most of the class behind; the lack of feedback makes it easy. In a workshop, because one is so close to the students, one sees the effect and it's hard to ignore it. The question of "should one teach to the level of the median student" is a big one, of course, and I can't address it here.

365 Days of drinking Lo-Cal beer. = 1 Lite-year