The Beauty of Maths and the Number 27

astronomy, communication, personal, science

I sure love the magic and beauty of numbers. Everything is numbers! Maths is everywhere! Patterns appear in nature, in structures around the world and even in distant galaxies.

Bertrand Russell expressed his sense of mathematical beauty in these words:

Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.

Twenty-seven is a perfect cube, being 3^3 = 3x3x3 and is the result of adding together the integers from 2 to 7 (2+3+4+5+6+7=27). It is also the only positive integer that is 3 times the sum of its digits (3x(2+7)). And 27 is the number of bones in the human hand.

In astronomy, Messier 27 (M27) is the magnificent planetary nebula otherwise known as the ‘Dumbbell Nebula’ and was the first planetary nebula to be discovered; in 1764 by Charles Messier from whom the catalogue bears his name. (See Featured image. Credit: ESO)

ISS Expedition 27 mission patch

And finally 27 is the Expedition number which was Italian astronaut, Paolo Nespoli’s second spaceflight. I have had the great fortunate of meeting him several times, including a Mission X opening event, Farnborough International Airshow, International Space University and he even appeared in a video appearance for us for the UKSEDS 25th Anniversary conference last year. From Expedition 26/27 he filmed the majority of the footage for the documentary film First Orbit, filming the view Yuri Gagarin saw on his pioneering orbital space flight. Paolo also captured many beautiful images during his mission, named MagISStra.

So why the number 27? Well, today is my 27th birthday!

Of course, I’m not going to argue with the great Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory that the best number is in fact 73.

My personal tribute to Prof. George Fraser


It has been a sad past week. One piece of news hit my e-mail inbox last week, that one of my old professors who I had seen only a few weeks earlier had passed away.

Prof. George Fraser, Director of the Space Research Centre, University of Leicester gave a great welcome and introduction to the UKSEDS National Student Space Conference 2014 (NSSC 2014) at the start of the month. He jokingly remarked how students were “in lectures…on a Saturday……at 9am”. He always had a great style of humour about him and was always in good spirits, whenever you’d meet him. As a graduate of the University of Leicester, I remember well his style of teaching and his anecdotes throughout lectures which would give valuable insight into the space sector. He was one of the select “greats” who made my experience all the more enjoyable.

Throughout my time at Leicester, I recall how he’d have a unique way of sharing the passion and knowledge of his subject. This is something that I soon realised was both nationally and internationally recognised in his support of student activities. I remember fondly his support of UKSEDS as he spoke in 2006 at the UKSEDS Conference, then held at the National Space Centre in Leicester. He spoke at a number of BROHP (British Rocketry Oral History Programme) which UKSEDS supported (before my time in UKSEDS Committee, which I later also helped to organise with the likes of David Boyce and Duncan Law-Green at the university).

He had a great ability to clearly convey complex ideas. He went on to become an influential figure behind the Space IDEAS Hub – a knowledge-transfer project based at the Space Research Centre, University of Leicester. He was involved in the development of the National Space Centre’s development from the outset and became a Non-Executive Director in 2004, shortly before I started at Leicester in 2005.

Prof. Fraser was a very well-respected academic with a long 36-year career at the University of Leicester. In 1977, he joined a group there including Profs. Mark Sims, Dick Willingale and Martin Barstow, who, as PhD students, worked on X-ray astronomy instrumentation. There he worked on many aspects of detector physics and on missions such as the Einstein Observatory and NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory. Earlier this year, he won the highly-prestigious Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Jackson-Gwilt Medal which recognised his accomplishments, and was to be presented to him at the 2014 National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2014) to be held in Portsmouth in June. The citation notes:

Professor Fraser’s innovative technical developments have been central to many of the X- ray missions over the last three decades, several of which are still in orbit, working well and producing unique data on the high energy Universe. One example of his innovative skills is the so-called “lobster-eye” concept applied to X-ray imaging. This is the basis of instruments proposed for several future space missions. His influence has been felt at many levels, and he has written a widely used textbook on X-ray detectors. Professor Fraser has also successfully bridged the gap between academia and industry. His contributions have played a major role in what has been recognised as a “Golden Age of X-ray astronomy”.

There was much still for him to look forward to, including the launch of BepiColumbo – Europe’s first mission to Mercury – for which he was Principal Investigator for the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS).

The space community has lost a true gem, but we take comfort that he touched the hearts of so many people and his contribution to science will always be remembered. He will be sorely missed.

Featured image – Credit: University of Leicester Press Office

2013 – A Year In Review

personal, rantings, travel

The weeks and months flutter by so quickly these days. I can hardly believe how fast 2013 has passed by. Now I have settled down a bit here in Munich, I can take a bit of time to reflect on the past year.

For me, 2013 was a great year. One with a great amount of travelling and a range of experiences, meeting new people and learning new things. I am still quite amazed at the sheer number of things I did and I am feeling much better for it.

I suppose 2013 was a strange new start for me. I moved on from some difficult personal circumstances and decided it was time for a change. I was offered a great opportunity to work in Vienna, supporting activities at Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC) at their HQ in Vienna.

Looking back, I suppose it was a great get-away at the perfect time, and an opportunity I have much sought, to work for an international organisation relating to space. Of course, prior to this I had been quite active for the International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA 2009) but this was really the first time I had moved to live in a different country for some months and support an organisation on the global level. I am thankful to SGAC for the opportunity and to be able to speak at the United Nations Committee for the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UN COPUOS) Scientific and Technical subcommittee.


Me speaking at the UN COPUOS on behalf of SGAC

I am pleased I was able to return later to the UN COPUOS Legal subcommittee before my departure from Vienna. It was a great four months or so there and I will hope to return from Munich shortly.

While in Vienna, I was also busy co-organising the UKSEDS National Student Space Conference 2013, in its 25th year. I was pleased to return to the UK for the celebrations.

From Vienna I travelled on to Berlin, where my good friend Charitarth was studying in an internship in Potsdam. Although I had been in Germany before, this was my first time to the capital. I was rather touched in seeing first-hand some of the history of the city in what remains of the Wall.

While visiting Charitarth, I was pleased to be called for interview for the International Space University (ISU) Space Studies Programme (SSP) which I applied for. Shortly after my return to the UK, I found out I was accepted onto the programme in Strasbourg, France at the central campus of ISU. I was amazed I received the full scholarship from the European Space  Agency (ESA) and UK Space Agency – the equivalent of 16,500 Euros!

ISU Campus. Credit: Ryan J.M. Laird

ISU Campus. Credit: Ryan J.M. Laird

In June I set out to Strasbourg and learnt more about the European space sector and its role in industry. I was able to visit many sites, including ESA’s mission control centre at ESA Operations Centre (ESOC), EUMETSAT and SES Satellites (Luxembourg). Earlier I had been to Inmarsat and Surrey Satellites Technology Ltd., so it was great to be able to absorb the industry side of space, as I was more familiar with the purely academic side.

It was a great summer. I learnt more about space applications, an up and coming sector, especially in the UK as we have launched Satellite Applications Catapult and our own ESA centre,  the European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT). It was also a lot of fun to travel more, meet new people from around the world and become part of a very active network for space. I was pleased I was able to fit in a visit to the Buran Space Shuttle at the Technik Museum Speyer.

Buran Space Shuttle at Technik Museum Speyer. Credit: Ryan J.M. Laird

Buran Space Shuttle at Technik Museum Speyer. Credit: Ryan J.M. Laird

We were warned by our professor, Scott Madry about the “de-orbit” from ISU. Throughout the summer, we worked in overdrive, deadlines were tight, there was one amazing opportunity from the next, a lot of travel but soon the nine weeks came to an end. We returned to our homes and time would appear to slow down. Indeed, when I returned home to Skegness it seemed like much of the summer was a dream. We did so many great things and met so many great people.

When I returned home, I was on the search for work. The current prospects in Europe are rather tough but I felt rather inspired by ISU and the new experiences I had learnt. Some days though, it was somewhat depressing to realise ISU was over and the reality set in. I applied to a number of positions and was pleased to be offered amazing opportunities at both UNAWE, based in the Netherlands and at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Germany. Thankfully it worked out that I was able to do both.

In October, I moved to Leiden in the Netherlands to work at UNAWE, based at Leiden University. My role was to disseminate Space Scoop, astronomy news for kids and aim to bring this to a much wider audience. It was a great experience to share Space Scoop with my existing network and learn of some new ones. In less week of me working at UNAWE, I travelled to Heidelberg, Germany and the Haus der Astronomie (House of Astronomy) where we held the UNAWE international workshop which brought together all the international partners.

It was amazing how many people I already knew in the Netherlands at ESTEC, nearby at TU Delft, as well as a couple of people at Leiden University itself. I was able to connect with the “ISU family” in a dinner there. I left with fond memories of Leiden and it is a shame it was so short-lived. I was pleased that I was able fit in a visit to Brussels, Belgium for the SGAC Christmas Dinner at the start of December, only a couple of hours drive away.

I returned home for Christmas for a week and then prepared for my next travels, onto Munich where I am currently based. I saw New Years through with a good friend and met some cool people in the hostel I stayed in.

2013 was a year with a lot of travel and different experiences. I was pleased at the opportunity to be able to work and study in a few different places. Whereas I really enjoyed this all, I feel I do need to focus more on permanent position in science communication, my main aim for 2014. I hope to bring all my experience to a new level.

I am now working at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, near Munich, the capital of the state of Bavaria in Germany. I will be working as a journalist, science communication intern for the next months. I will work with a team of professional science communicators for the preparation of ESO and ESA/Hubble news and photo releases, publications, web pages, video scripts, exhibition panels and other public communication products.


personal, reading

Something reminded me of the following, this week. I remember it from old Yorkshire Television years ago now. I find it quiet a neat poem I thought I should care.


What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.

No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.

No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.

No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.

No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.

A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

By Wm. Henry Davies. (1871-1940)

It’s the final countdown!!! Dee dee doo doo, dee dee doo doo doo…!

personal, university
Well I’m coming to the end of my fourth and final year and I can’t quite believe it. I have just finished my exams which is a big relief now. I think it’s been a tough year, but enjoyable none-the-less. I think the projects have been the most enjoyable major difference, as much as they’ve been a lot of work. The style and format is very different to previous years, of course more work for one, but mainly that we have to present posters, give presentations and design a portfolio which probably have made the projects much harder than our previous years especially having little/no experience at these. Nonetheless I feel I accomplished these well and I hope I get a deserving grade. I’ve enjoyed in particular Directed Reading. I enjoy reading in general and I think it’s been an important experience for sorting through material which may or may not be relevant and condensing down the important bits into a logical structure – I think a major importance for a PhD (which I hope to do).

Having more coursework has thankfully meant we have had less exams to revise for which I feel makes the difference. The level however we needed to attain for these exams I think was much higher, as was to be expected from 4th year advancements last year. Overall though I believe they went fairly well overall. There was one hard exam that everyone felt was hard so I do hope there is some compensation for this, though I doubt any scaling will show how I feel the exam could have gone. I guess that is the way exams go sometime…. but hoorah, no more exams (at least for now)!

I’m almost counting down the days until graduation. I can’t quite believe it’s here. It’s been a very memorable 4 years. I remember 1st year and being summoned to a full-on 9.30-5.30 day, 4 days a week of lectures and afternoon practicals for most of the 1st term, though I guess in a sense that didn’t really change much. University life has been something amazing. I can’t quite believe it’s nearly 4 years since I was in the Coppice, part of Beaumont Hall then and before it was refurbished. A lot has happened since then. Even back then the current arrangement of the department was very different, especially upstairs on first floor and we didn’t have those comfy blue and black sofas. I think Pam will be the one person everyone remembers, the “mother” of the department, especially to the first years and making the department a friendly and welcoming place. Of course we’ll all remember those funny lectures and those funny habits and quotes of lecturers we will never forget. In 4 years the university library of course has changed to be more modern and I think I will always remember it’s construction. There will always be the memories of moments shared with friends, never forgotten; those drunken nights out, random things said to one another, silly incidences, parties and much more.

University has been an experience. Academically, Leicester has given me some great opportunities. I’ve been lucky to work in my department doing research for the past two years and through that have been fortunate to become co-author of several scientific papers. Also I’ve had hands-on experience with building a real satellite, worked amongst leading scientists of their field and forged amazing links in astronomy and space. Personally and socially I think the university experience has brought me out more as a person. Various experiences and circumstances have made me realise myself I feel, which I largely had not known.

Soon begins a new chapter in our lives and I hope it is a positive one for many. I have made some good friends over these years and I do hope I will stay in touch with many of these. Facebook, despite its idiosyncrasies in my view, for such purposes of staying in touch with people and finding lost friends I think is an amazing tool. I’m sure many people will go on and do amazing things and I’m sure there will be people we can look back on and remember during these good times, but also fondly during bad times as well.