31 March 2009

Mine! All mine!

Three days ago I placed a bid in the silent auction of Lalla Ward's tapestries and ceramics to benefit the Gerard Durrell Fund for Galapagos Conservation. I have now learned (via personal email from Richard Dawkins no less!) that my bid for the large Floreana mockingbird plate pictured at right was successful. Come to mama, plate!

Rant alert.

Full on, face-melting rant about the British love of celebrating failure on the way. Take beta blockers, tape over your windows, hide under your mattress like they said in the cold war. It's going to be big.

27 March 2009

To save a mockingbird: the auction

There's just under a day left to place a silent bid (either in person or by email) for Lalla Ward's ceramic paintings and tapestries inspired by Galapagos wildlife in aid of the Gerard Durrell Fund for Galapagos Conservation. Details at RichardDawkins.net (the connection here is that Lalla is married to Richard and has illustrated his books, in case you were wondering, which, of course, you were). At the risk of inspiring others to bid for my personal favourites, here they are:

Saving Darwin's muse
Help save Darwin's mockingbirds
In the field with Darwin's mockingbirds
Yours truly, animated!

Bow of the sprit to Nicole Maturen

26 March 2009

So long ye surly bonds of Earth!

NASA Flight Engineer Mike Barratt, together with Russian commander Gennady Padalka and space tourist Charles Simonyi are now safely in orbit and will dock with the International Space Station in two days.

Watching the launch live was intense - I've never actually known someone personally who has sat atop a giant controlled explosion before and I swear I didn't breathe for about two minutes before and after the actual 'lighting of the candle'. I can't even imagine what it was like for the astronauts' famillies.

One special thing about Soyuz launches is that there is a live video feed from inside the cabin, so you can watch the cosmonauts and astronauts as they're experiencing the launch. The photo at right is a screen shot I took of the NASA TV coverage, showing Padalky on the left and Barratt on the right. Simonyi is off camera to the bottom.

Watch or download a recording of the NASA TV coverage of the launch here; live in-cabin views begin at 2:38; the stage separations at 3:10, 5:58 and especially 9:59 are pretty exciting as you can see the physical jolt they experience as they suddenly decelerate with loss of the previous stage. I also like how Padalka uses a stick to throw switches during high g-loads (sometimes simple solutions are the best) and occassionally pokes the stuffed toy he has hanging above him in the cabin.

"Po'yekhali!" My skype call with astronaut Mike Barratt at T minus two days

Exactly 90 minutes from now, my friend, NASA astronaut Mike Barratt, left, will be sitting on top of this Soyuz rocket, right, in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, as it roars to life and shoots into space.

I still can't believe my luck that I got to have an hour-long skype video call with Mike on Tuesday night, and he said it was okay with him if I told you what we talked about.

He seemed physically relaxed in his spare, post-communist digs, though I could tell he had a lot going on in his head. For example, he told me that he will be the oldest person to do a first-time launch - he'll be celebrating his 50th birthday in space, on April 16th. Scattered throughout our conversation were many pieces of astronaut jargon, one of my favorites being that they call the launch 'lighting the candle'. We're close enough to April 16th now that I like to think of it as his first and biggest 50th birthday candle.

Mike's got a lot on his plate during his six months up there, not least preparing the station for the transition from a three-person crew to a six-person crew (double the crew, double the science!).

Speaking of science, Mike is a scientist (check out his textbook on space medicine) and will be carrying out lots of experiments aboard the space station - physiology and space medicine of course but he'll also be participating in NASA's vibrant Earth Observation program, photographing Earth as they circle it every 90 minutes.

Mike will capture images of a lot of places on Earth on his six months aboard the ISS, I'm sure, but he's going to pay special attention to the route of HMS Beagle, 1831-1836, which will also be the route of the new Beagle once she's built and launched. The plan - codified in an International Space Act Agreement between NASA and The Beagle Project - will see Mike's successors on the space station photographing the Beagle's position so that space imagery can be corellated directly with biological samping from ocean surface waters.

Mike will also be doing lots of educational work on station, like making videos for classrooms. He told me he's going to talk about the links between the historical voyages of discovery, like Endeavour and Beagle, and how they relate to our more recent voyages of discovery in space ...not just in terms of science but also in terms of personal experience. For example, there's a strong link between the cramped quarters on an historic sailing ship and the cramped quarters aboard the ISS. And during a recent 'shudder' aboard ISS, NASA compared the movement to a ship on a violent sea.

But for now, of course, Mike's focused on the launch itself and docking with the ISS, and so am I. I'll be watching live on NASA TV ..and tweeting like mad!

At the end of our call, I asked him, 'So, what do I say? In the US I know you are supposed to wish astronauts 'Godspeed' but what do the cosmonauts say?'

'Po'yekhali', he told me. 'It means, simply, "let's go!"'

Note: if you miss it live on NASA TV, you can watch the recorded content here. It seems to be posted pretty soon after the actual event. For example, yesterday's pre-launch press conference is up (and is a real gem).

23 March 2009

Beagle Project peep Mike Barratt launching this Thursday for 6-month ISS flight

Mike Barratt, who I count as both a friend and a collaborator, is launching this Thursday in the Soyuz to begin his 6-month stay aboard the International Space Station. In the words of another Beagle Project collaborator: "God Speed and may Science fortify his voyage!"

Commander Gennady Padalka, left, and Flight Engineer Michael Barratt will launch in a Russian Soyuz rocket from Kazakhstan, along with spaceflight participant Charles Simonyi. They'll join crewmate Koichi Wakata.
Photo: NASA (as if there was any doubt).

Expedition 19 pre-launch, launch and docking coverage highlights on NASA TV:

All times EDT*

March 23, Monday
10 a.m. - Expedition 19/Spaceflight Participant Crew Activities from Baikonur, Kazakhstan

March 24, Tuesday
11 a.m. - Soyuz TMA-14 Rollout to Launch Pad and Expedition 19/Spaceflight Participant Crew Activities from Baikonur, Kazakhstan

March 25, Wednesday
10 a.m. - Expedition 19/Spaceflight Participant Pre-Launch News Conference and Russian State Commission from Baikonur, Kazakhstan

March 26, Thursday
6 a.m. - Expedition 19/Spaceflight Participant Pre-Launch Activities Video Feed from Baikonur, Kazakhstan - Baikonur, Kazakhstan and JSC
7 a.m. - Expedition 19/Spaceflight Participant Launch Coverage (launch scheduled at 7:49 a.m. ET; launch replays follow conclusion of launch coverage) - Baikonur, Kazakhstan and JSC
10 a.m. - Expedition 19/Spaceflight Participant Launch Day Activities, Launch and Post-Launch Interviews

March 28, Saturday
8:45 a.m. - Expedition 19/Spaceflight Participant Docking to ISS Coverage (docking scheduled at 9:15 a.m. ET; post-docking news conference follows)
11:45 a.m. and 2 p.m. - Expedition 19/Spaceflight Participant/Expedition 18 Soyuz TMA-14 Hatch Opening and Welcoming Ceremony (Soyuz TMA-14 hatch opening scheduled at 12:10 p.m. ET)

April 1, Wednesday
10:10 a.m. – 10:40 a.m. - Expedition 19/18/Spaceflight Participant Joint Crew News Conference
12 p.m. – Interpreted Replay of Expedition 19/18/Spaceflight Participant Crew News Conference

April 2, Thursday
1 p.m. - Expedition 19/18 Change of Command Ceremony

Full NASA TV coverage schedule here. In case you miss the live coverage, a good source for recorded coverage seems to be here.

*EDT = Eastern Daylight Time = GMT minus 4 hours through Saturday the 28th, GMT minus 5 hours on and after Sunday the 29th

22 March 2009

The Beagle Project on Twitter: feedback wanted

n.b. If web2.0 and its vocabulary make your head feel like it's going to explode, I suggest clicking away now.

The Beagle Project's twitter account (@beagleproject) is just over three months old now, and it's still struggling to hit its stride.

I thought it might be cool to use it as TBPB's mini-blog (hence the feed in the sidebar and the lack of TBPB post announcements in the twitter feed), but that's just not quite right. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Richard, I know you told me that delicious would be better for that ages ago but what can I say; I'm climbing a precipitous learning curve.

So. What to do with @beagleproject? I'm hoping that you, that is, our fans, readers, blogpeeps and tweeps can help us with this by weighing in on a few questions.
  1. Why do you follow organisations on twitter? What sorts of tweets do you want from organisations as opposed to individuals? Are there any organisations' twitter feeds that you think are good examples for us to follow?
  2. When you subscribe to organisations on twitter, do you assume and/or hope that it's just one person tweeting from within that organisation or do you assume and/or hope it's more than one? In other words, how important is personal voice in an organisation's tweetstream?
  3. What kinds of tweets would you like from The Beagle Project: project news? ...live updates from beagle project happenings? ...notices that there's a new post up here at TBPB? ...all of the above?
  4. Is @beagleproject redundant considering I already tweet on @kejames or do you think it can be a valuable platform for building and informing a Beagle Project fan base?
  5. Any other thoughts on what to do with @beagleproject?

15 March 2009

T minus 6 hours and counting

Barring any (more) last-minute delays, our friends at NASA will be launching Space Shuttle Discovery tonight at 7:43pm EDT = 11:43pm GMT. Here she is on the the launchpad looking all beautiful and ready to slip the surly bonds of Earth:

You can watch live on NASA TV or SpaceVidcast and for total immersion, you might also consider following the launch on Twitter. I'll be live-tweeting the launch but why not also follow the source @NASA, @SSDiscovery, @sts119 and other reliable space tweeps like @BadAstronomer and @Nancy_A?

This is Space Shuttle Mission STS-119 (the 28th shuttle mission to the International Space Station) led by Air Force Col. Lee Archambault and piloted by Navy Cmdr. Tony Antonelli with mission specialists Joseph Acaba, John Phillips, Steve Swanson, Richard Arnold and Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Koichi Wakata. Only Wakata will remain on the station, to serve as a flight engineer for Expeditions 18 and 19.

Wakata will be joined later this month by fellow Expedition 19 crew members Commander Gennady Padalka and (Beagle Project collaborator! -->) Flight Engineer Michael Barratt, who, together with spaceflight participant Charles Simonyi (yes, the same Charles Simonyi who endowed Richard Dawkins' professorship at Oxford) will launch aboard a Soyuz TMA-14 spacecraft from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on March 26 at 7:49 a.m. Coverage plans for the Soyuz launch can be found here.

Don't miss the cool Expedition 19 photo gallery (see link in right sidebar) featuring Mike and the others in their various space regalia. For more about the different missions to the station and how they relate to each other, see the ISS news page.

An eerily pretty Soyuz rocket makes its way to the launch site at Baikonur Cosmodrome by rail. Credit: NASA

11 March 2009

'Darwin and the Adventure' to be funded by the British Council

Update 12 March: Thanks to Miriam in comments and also several emailers for pointing out that this post might lead one to think the Beagle Project has abandoned the idea of rebuilding the Beagle and instead intends to repeat Darwin's circumnavigation aboard Tocorimé. Let me reassure you that this is not the case. The aim here, to quote from the proposal itself, is "to prove the use of a traditionally rigged sailing vessel for modern science at sea, to both simulate and stimulate the creation of a modern version of HMS Beagle for science, education and outreach, and especially for training young scientists."

Big news, everyone! Just this morning we learned that a grant proposal to create a research network around a planned* Beagle Project circumnavigation of South America aboard the Brazilian tall ship Tocorimé has been funded by the British Council!

The tall ship Tocorimé.

Here's our British Council Darwin Now Network grant application summary:
The year 2009 marks the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Without a doubt the greatest influence on Darwin and the development of his theory of evolution came during his travels in and around South America, carried by HMS Beagle and supported by HMS Adventure. Darwin experienced the wonders of the tropical rainforest in Brazil, fossils in Argentina, the uplifting of land in Chile and the remarkable variation of fauna on the Galapagos Islands.

This proposal aims to support the recreation of Darwin’s travels around South America, undertaking new science as part of an international effort to understand and develop a system of DNA-based identification of taxa (DNA barcoding). It will correlate this science at sea on the Brazilian tall ship Tocorimé (Portuguese for Adventure) with a view of the world that Darwin could only dream of - from the International Space Station.

Funding is sought to bring together scientists from South America and the UK, the Tocorimé operators, the organisers of The HMS Beagle Trust and NASA to plan a scientific expedition from Rio to the Galapagos that will throw new light on evolutionary science in a highly visible and exciting way.
More specifically the grant will support:
  • a workshop in Rio de Janeiro "to bring together a new international team to discuss with the Tocorimé operators - cruise logistics, scientific aims, timing, observations from space, public and schools outreach and contribution to the international Census of Marine Life and Consortium for the Barcode of Life"
  • the organisation of "public events in Rio, Buenos Aires, Concepcion and the Galapagos to publicise the results from the cruise and their importance to evolutionary science using internet and teleconferencing technology"
The proposal is led by deep sea researcher and friend of the Beagle Project Dr David Billett, Co-Chair of Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems, National Oceanography Centre, University of Southampton and Co-Is include yours truly plus researchers from Brazil and Chile and representatives from the Charles Darwin Foundation in Galapagos and NASA. Additional researchers from The Cape Verde Islands, Uruguay, Argentina and Peru will be invited to participate.

*I say 'planned' because the Tocorimé team is still actively fundraising for the cost of the voyage; there is much work to be done

5 March 2009

The best science writing on blogs, in paperback!

Excitement in the science blogosphere! The Open Laboratory: The Best in Science Writing on Blogs (2008) is now available and is flying (you know, like the trilobite) off the mean, green shelves of Lulu. Buy here!

For the full scoop including a range of fancy new badges like this one:

...which is now gracing our sidebar (...what, didn't I mention I'm featured?), click over to Bora's place.

3 March 2009

Happy Birthday to the Friends of Charles Darwin

fifteen years ago yesterday a couple of enthusiasts founded the Friends of Charles Darwin and wrote to the Chief Cashier of the Bank of England suggesting that it would be a boss idea to honour one of the greatest scientists ever by putting his distinctive face and hard to forge beard on a banknote. They succeeded, and congrats to Richard and Fitz for their efforts. Every day millions of Darwins pass before people's eyes and the FCD campaign has probably done as much as all the learned lectures ever to remind people of Darwin's work.

You can join the Friends of Charles Darwin, which is free, and maybe donate a Darwin (£10 and don't forget you can claim gift aid if you are a UK taxpayer) in to help us build the new Beagle, without which Darwin would have become a English country vicar.

1 March 2009

Coming soon: the RebuildTheBeagle YouTube Challenge!

One of the many Good Things to come out of this year's Science Online '09 conference in North Carolina was a Saturday dinnertime brainstorm in which Brian Switek of Laelaps, Glendon Mellow of The Flying Trilobite and I came up with the idea that we should do a YouTube campaign for the Beagle Project along the same lines as the (successful!) AVoteForScience YouTube Challenge.

Here's how it's going to work:
  1. All you Beagle Project fans out there* make videos answering the question: "Why rebuild the Beagle?"
  2. Upload your video to YouTube, tagging it "RebuildTheBeagle"
  3. Our Embedr smart playlist will automatically detect your video and include it in a lovely embeddable video player.
Since there are no YouTube videos yet tagged "RebuildTheBeagle" (I'm still in the process of making my own video to kickstart the project and seed the playlist), I've made an example Embedr smart playlist so you can see what it will be like. This playlist picks up keywords "HMS" and "Beagle":

Now watch this space and start ruminating on your own contribution!

*young and old, scientists and non, professionals and amateurs, sailors and landlubbers, mollusks and echinoderms, we're talkin' to you! The more personal and/or creative the better!