Matt Jones

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Fictional spacecraft on the ground and real spacecraft in space

Full-scale model of the James Webb Space Telescope at SXSW 2013 Credit: Maggie Masetti CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Watch a J.J. Abrams science fiction film and a recurring visual motif is the shot of a spaceship in a terrestrial setting. Whether it’s the shots of the Enterprise built on the Earth-based shipyards in Star Trek (2009), or wrecked Imperial Star Destroyers wedged into the ground of Jakku in Star Trek: The Force Awakens.

Humans, being terrestrial beings, find it easier to understand and experience things in the familiar context of land or sea, where there’s obvious up and a down. Things moving in space, on the other hand, are much trickier for the brain to contextualise. No doubt Abrams has this in mind when thinking about how to give his science fiction films mass commercial appeal.

When we think of the Hubble Telescope imaging distant galaxies away from the distorting effects of Earth’s atmosphere, we may have vague ideas of it being out there in space somewhere, but we don’t tend to think of it as just 350 miles above us, hurtling around the Earth at 18000 mph. But Hubble’s speed relative to us is irrelevent to its ability to capture light from the furthest objects in the observable Universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope is the successor to Hubble. With a larger mirror and more advanced optics it will look deeper into space and further back in time to the formation of the earliest galaxies, giving us a new, more humbling perspective of our place in the Universe.

While the general principles of the James Webb telescope are similar to Hubble - an optical scope gathering light at infrared wavelengths - its position in space is different. Instead of orbiting the Earth, it will orbit the Sun over 900,000 miles away from us, that’s nearly four times the distance of the Moon from the Earth. Scientists will achieve this by placing it around the L2 Lagrangian point, a position in the Sun-Earth gravitational system that will allow the telescope to maintain a relative position to Earth and avoid Earth’s shadow.

That cradle-like base you can see pictured isn’t a base (there’s no up or down remember?) but a solar shield. This will turn to face the Sun to keep the telescope in the shade at a chilly -267 Celsius. Without this the heat from the sensor itself would affect the infrared light it’s detecting from the early Universe.

In troubled geopolitical times, it’s good to see international scientific efforts to move humanity forward. Although worringly NASA has set back the launch date a number of times. Originally due to the launch this year, last year they reschuled it for 2019, and now it is schedules for a 2021 launch. As a joint project between NASA and ESA I hope it overcomes any hurdle put in its place by the Trump-Brexit axis of stupidity.

I will be watching hopefully.

Celestial mechanics and the new political landscape

In 2013 Comet ISON, a frozen lump of dust and gas about 1 kilometre in diameter was falling towards the sun. Known as a ‘sungrazing’ comet, ISON’s orbit meant that its 3 million year journey from the outer solar system would end in a perilous encounter with our Star, and no-one knew if it would survive.

On November 28 that year, the comet reached perihelion - its closest point to the Sun - and astronomers waited to see what came round the other side. Something did emerge, but it wasn’t the comet, it was just a remnant of it, fizzing out as the tidal forces and heat from the Sun pulverised it.

I think what just happened to the political landcape in the UK is a bit like that comet. If the comet, on its long approach to the Sun, represented the political status quo, then its uncertain encounter and subsequent annihilation represents the political chaos that we’re now experiencing.

I believe the only thing that can provide any sense of hope for the future of our political system is complete electoral reform.

At the root of the problem is the our First-past-the-post system of electing government; it means that a Party can hold a majority with a relatively small share of votes cast across a few marginal seats. This is the reason why people feel so disenfranchised, and why parties feel they have to do the bidding of the popular press to get into power.

The attempt by the PLP to remove Jeremy Corbyn and move the Labour Party back to the centre ground in order to win power is merely addressing a symptom of the problem. Even if the Blairite side of the party are successful and we get a more right-wing Labour Party in power, a large section of the electorate are going to feel as underrepresented as they do under the centre-right Government we have now.

So, let’s have a truly representative Government, one in which no single party has overall control and is made up of broad coalitions that represent the full political spectrum of the electorate. The prospect of parties on the political extremes gaining more power as a result would be bitter pill to swallow, but in my opinion, worth it if more people vote and feel engaged in politics.

For a new form of Government, we’ll need a new building. Let’s vacate the crumbling Houses of Parliament and commission a new beautiful building for our representatives to assemble in, with a chamber that encourages cooperation across party lines - not the confrontational two-sided design of the Lower House.

Finally, I’m not sure where the matter of the possible break up of the Union fits in to all this; I prefer the status quo as far as this is concerned. There’s speculation about the emergence of the UK as a federal state but I’ll leave that to another post.

Join me next time when I attempt to use a Supernova collapsing into a Black Hole as a metaphor for what’s just happened to the Labour Party.

Bowie and the 90s Internet

You might have seen the Paxman interview with David Bowie from 1999, in which he talks about the “unimaginable potential” of the Internet for democratising the music industry.

I’m lucky to have experienced the Web in its infancy, and the sense that it was the start of a major and positive development in global knowledge-sharing and communication; the important factor being that it was under the ownership of everyone and not a handful of megacorporations.

I wonder what David Bowie thought of the Internet towards the end of his life, and whether it seemed like it was ‘business as usual’ when it comes to distribution of digital music.

2013: The Year the BBC Looked Like a Bogus Signer

If the BBC was a neutral broadcaster working on behalf of the public that funds it ... we might have expected it to broadcast the [mass protest about hospital cuts and the sell-off of the NHS](, brokered by a political party that hasn't won an election for 22 years.

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