Hacking the stars (#4)

Now that the ISEE-3 Reboot Project has successfully started talking to the almost-abandoned ISEE-3 space probe (isn’t it great?), it’s worth taking an inventory of the (rather old) experiments on board. This is my understanding of the last known status:

1. BAH: Solar Wind Plasma [electrons only, ion portion failed]

2. OGH: Solar Wind Ion Composition [operational]

3. SMH: Vector Helium Magnetometer [operational]

4. SCH: Plasma Waves Spectrum Analyzer [operational]

5. DFH/EPAS: Energetic Particle Anisotropy Spectrometer – see image below, from Imperial College [operational]

6. SBH: Radio Mapping of Solar Wind Disturbances in 3-D [operational]

7A. ANH: X- and Gamma-Ray Bursts [operational]

7B. ANH: Interplanetary and Solar Electrons > 2 keV [below 300 keV failed]

8. HOH: Low-Energy Cosmic Rays [partial failure]

9. TYH: Medium Energy Cosmic Rays [operational]

10. STH: Cosmic Ray Isotope Spectrometer [partial failure]

11. HKH: High-Energy Cosmic Rays [partial failure]

12. MEH: Cosmic-Ray Energy Spectrum [operational]

13. Gamma-Ray Bursts, 0.05-6.5 MeV [partial failure]

We’ll soon find out how accurate that list is. And hopefully, once the preliminaries are over, someone will think of some really cool stuff to do with that equipment…

Even if we get just one good data feed onto the web, I’ll consider the reboot a glorious success.

Update 1: The ISEE-3 Reboot Project reports successfully receiving engineering telemetry from the probe, although work is still required on decoding it:

7c 02 02 02 02 02 02 02 7c 02 02 02 02 02 02 02
7c 00 02 00 00 f2 00 00 7c 02 02 79 a0 00 00 00
7c 00 02 33 c8 02 4d 02 7c 4b 02 76 00 00 00 00
7c 02 02 53 01 02 39 02 7c 44 02 00 b1 49 00 00
7c 00 02 5a 00 19 5c 64 7c 4b 02 0e a0 00 00 00
7c 0e 02 4b 47 63 91 1d 7c 42 02 4d 36 00 00 00
7c 45 02 44 4e 8a 89 02 7c ce 02 50 a4 00 00 00
7c 48 02 32 4b b5 d2 ad 7c 33 02 12 fc 81 9f be

Update 2: The Reboot Project also reports that they are receiving information from the Vector Helium Magnetometer.

Choose your favourite NASA LRO image of the moon

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has been photographing the Moon since 2009, and to celebrate its fifth anniversary, NASA is asking people to vote for one of the five fabulous pictures above (click image to go to voting website, with larger versions of the pictures). Which one do you think is the most beautiful?

Hacking the stars (#3)

The ISEE-3 Reboot Project has been communicating with the ancient ISEE-3 space probe, using hardware at the Arecibo Observatory (above) in Puerto Rico, and support from around the world.

The reboot team report that “We are now in command of the isee-3 spacecraft … our team has established two-way communication with the ISEE-3 spacecraft and has begun commanding it to perform specific functions.” Well done, team, and let’s hope that the next steps in the project continue to work well!

Eternal vigilance is the price of engineering

There are some great lines in this classic poem by Rudyard Kipling, in praise of the often undervalued work done by engineers and associated construction workers. The central metaphor draws on the Bible story told in Luke 10:38–42.

The Sons of Martha (1907)

The Sons of Mary seldom bother, for they have inherited that good part;
But the Sons of Martha favour their Mother of the careful soul and the troubled heart.
And because she lost her temper once, and because she was rude to the Lord her Guest,
Her Sons must wait upon Mary’s Sons, world without end, reprieve, or rest.

It is their care in all the ages to take the buffet and cushion the shock.
It is their care that the gear engages; it is their care that the switches lock.

It is their care that the wheels run truly; it is their care to embark and entrain,
Tally, transport, and deliver duly the Sons of Mary by land and main.

They say to mountains “Be ye removèd.” They say to the lesser floods “Be dry.”
Under their rods are the rocks reprovèd – they are not afraid of that which is high.

Then do the hill-tops shake to the summit – then is the bed of the deep laid bare,
That the Sons of Mary may overcome it, pleasantly sleeping and unaware.

They finger Death at their gloves’ end where they piece and repiece the living wires.
He rears against the gates they tend: they feed him hungry behind their fires.

Early at dawn, ere men see clear, they stumble into his terrible stall,
And hale him forth like a haltered steer, and goad and turn him till evenfall.

To these from birth is Belief forbidden; from these till death is Relief afar.
They are concerned with matters hidden – under the earthline their altars are –
The secret fountains to follow up, waters withdrawn to restore to the mouth,
And gather the floods as in a cup, and pour them again at a city’s drouth.

They do not preach that their God will rouse them a little before the nuts work loose.
They do not preach that His Pity allows them to drop their job when they damn-well choose.

As in the thronged and the lighted ways, so in the dark and the desert they stand,
Wary and watchful all their days that their brethren’s ways may be long in the land.

Raise ye the stone or cleave the wood to make a path more fair or flat;
Lo, it is black already with the blood some Son of Martha spilled for that!
Not as a ladder from earth to Heaven, not as a witness to any creed,
But simple service simply given to his own kind in their common need.

And the Sons of Mary smile and are blessèd – they know the Angels are on their side.
They know in them is the Grace confessèd, and for them are the Mercies multiplied.
They sit at the feet – they hear the Word – they see how truly the Promise runs.
They have cast their burden upon the Lord, and – the Lord He lays it on Martha’s Sons!

“THEY DIED TO MAKE THE DESERT BLOOM” – memorial at the Hoover Dam
(photo: ‘NortyNort’)

Blogroll: Randal Olson

Randal Olson always has something interesting to say about data visualisation. He’s now running a series of posts on visualising the evolution of chess, as the result of data mining a large repository of games. Randal has looked at match lengths and outcomes and at opening moves by white and black (one of his many plots is shown below). Anyone interested in chess and/or data visualisation should certainly take a look!

God’s Philosophers: a book review

God’s Philosophers by James Hannam (2009)

I recently read James Hannam’s God’s Philosophers, which is the story of the Medieval ideas that led up to modern science, told largely through short biographies of major and minor figures (this relates to my previous two posts about when and why science began, as well as to my three posts about science and Dante).

Farming in the 15th Century

The early Middle Ages was, to a large extent, a struggle to build a more productive agricultural system (since Europe had lost access to the rich grain-fields of North Africa that had fed the Roman Empire). The later Middle Ages, however, saw an explosion of new ideas. Some of these ideas came from the Muslim world, but many were entirely original.

The Age of Cathedrals: Bourges (begun c. 1195, finished c. 1230)

Hannam briefly surveys Medieval mathematics, logic, medicine, astronomy, astrology, alchemy, and engineering. Roger Bacon (1214–1292) and Richard of Wallingford (1292–1336) are discussed in some detail. The former wrote on optics and the theory of science, while the latter did work in trigonometry and designed an elaborate astronomical clock. Clocks were to replace living things as metaphors for the operation of the Universe.

Richard of Wallingford using a pair of compasses

Hannam also has a chapter on the Merton CalculatorsThomas Bradwardine (c. 1290–1349), Richard Swineshead (fl. 1340–1355), and William Heytesbury (c. 1313–1373). As well as contributing to logic, these scholars anticipated Galileo’s application of mathematics to physics, proving the mean speed theorem. In France, Nicole Oresme (c. 1325–1382) developed an elegant graphical proof of this theorem, as well as doing work in astronomy and introducing the bar graph. Ironically, it was the later Humanists who, inspired by the glories of ancient Greece and Rome, discarded some of these advances (the same source of inspiration also led to a decline in women’s rights, as Régine Pernoud has pointed out).

Merton College, Oxford (Michael Angelo Rooker, 1771)

Hannam finishes his book with the stories of Kepler and Galileo. These are better known than those of the Medievals, but the myths surrounding Galileo seem to be as persistent as those about the so-called “Dark Ages.” Hannam’s treatment is necessarily simplistic and brief, but he does point out Galileo’s debt to Oresme and the Merton Calculators. For readers specifically interested in Galileo, the best introductory book is probably Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel, with Finocchiaro for follow-up.

Although Galileo pitted the modern Copernicus against the ancient Ptolemy, Tycho Brahe had already suggested a hybrid system, which was only later proved wrong

Hannam concludes “It would be wrong to romanticise the period and we should be very grateful that we do not have to live in it. But the hard life that people had to bear only makes their progress in science and many other fields all the more impressive. We should not write them off as superstitious primitives. They deserve our gratitude.

See also this review in Nature of Hannam’s book (“God’s Philosophers condenses six hundred years of history and brings to life the key players who pushed forward philosophy and reason”), this review by a Christian blogger (“In God’s Philosophers James Hannam traces medieval natural philosophy—and some of the other disciplines we’ve come to think of as scientific, such as medicine—through the reign of Plato and Aristotle to the discoveries of Kepler and Galileo”), and this excellent review by an atheist historian (“… the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland is regularly wheeled, creaking, into the sunlight for another trundle around the arena. … Hannam sketches how polemicists like Thomas Huxley, John William Draper, and Andrew Dickson White, all with their own anti-Christian axes to grind, managed to shape the still current idea that the Middle Ages was devoid of science and reason.”). Hannam has also responded comprehensively to this negative review by Charles Freeman. I disagree with Freeman, and am giving Hannam’s well-researched and readable book four stars. My only real quibble is Hannam’s somewhat biased view of the Protestant Reformation.

* * * *
God’s Philosophers by James Hannam: 4 stars

Three little words explained


The word “traffic” means “all the cars except mine.” As the old slogan goes, “you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.”


The word “away” (as in “I’ll throw it away”) means “where someone else can deal with it.”


The word “bug” (as in “software bug”) means “my stupid mistake,” but suggests that an error somehow crawled (or flew) into my program without me being responsible. Which is sometimes a convenient fantasy.

The thermometer

The earliest form of thermometer was invented by Galileo between 1592 and 1603. The basic idea was refined by various scientists over the centuries, since temperature measurement is a very important activity. Daniel Fahrenheit (he of the temperature scale) invented the first mercury-in-glass thermometer somewhere between 1714 and 1724.

Other temperature-measuring technologies were to follow. In 1871, in his Bakerian Lecture, Sir William Siemens proposed the resistance thermometer: “it is shown that, in taking advantage of the circumstance that the electrical resistance of a metallic conductor increases with an increase of temperature, an instrument may be devised for measuring with great accuracy the temperature at distant or inaccessible places, including the interior of furnaces, where metallurgical or other smelting-operations are carried on… In measuring furnace temperatures the platinum-wire constituting the pyrometer is wound upon a small cylinder of porcelain contained in a closed tube of iron or platinum, which is exposed to the heat to be measured.

Practical versions of this proposed device were operational by 1887. The alternate technology of the infrared thermometer for medical use goes back to a 1934 paper by Hardy and Muschenheim.

The most fun way to measure temperature is probably the inaccurately named “Galilean thermometer,” with its colourful glass balls floating in a liquid column:

The first weather-satellite picture of the earth

The first successful weather satellite was TIROS-1, and on April 1, 1960, TIROS-1 gave us the first weather-satellite picture of the earth. It does seem, however, that the pioneering first picture from TIROS-1 is not the one usually shown, but this one (which has a few glitches, but is worth preserving as an historic image):