Astronomy / Space podcasts

Some years ago I started running. Well I say running, it’s quite possible many could walk faster. I normally, depending on mood / willingness of the body / weather conditions manage anywhere between 10 and 12 minutes per mile. On average I rack up somewhere between 100 and 125 miles a month. Which means I have a lot of time where I can just elect to mentally “switch off” and run, or, listen to something while I’m out. Initially I used to choose music, but after a while I tired of that and starting listening to podcasts.

As the title suggests, this piece is about podcasts about (in general) anything astronomy or space related. A quick flick through your choice of podcast feed will reveal dozens of candidates worthy of a listen. I’ve tried many. But I invariably settle down to those I’ve listed below. Anyone will surely realise that a choice of what you may consider “the best” is very subjective. It depends on many criteria, not least of which are what you expect from it, to be informed? Entertained? Challenged?

Anyway, here are my ‘goto’ podcasts. I’ll give a brief overview of why I choose them and what they offer.

The Jodcast: http://www.jodcast.net – is created by the astronomers from the University of Manchester’s Jodrell Bank. From a simple astronomical perspective, every month there is very comprehensive star guide for both northern and southern skies. If you’re wondering what to look for, then this section gives you an excellent head start for the month ahead. Most of you will no doubt know that Jodrell Bank if famous for the Lovell Telescope, an iconic and (still) world leading radio telescope in Cheshire. The astronomers at the facility therefore have a natural bent towards that branch of the profession. This suits me fine since one of my other interests is radio. While I confess that some of the content is a little over my head since it can be quite “academic rich”, it’s at a sufficient level that should I be really taken by one of the subjects, I can read around and very quickly understand what’s being discussed. A bonus, (in my view) is that the presenters are (dare I say it), “normal” people. The production, while certainly professional, doesn’t come across in any way patronising. It’s simply knowledgeable people talking about that they do in a way that attempts to explain to those who know a little less what they’re on about. In addition, there is often a podcast extra which complements the standard monthly addition and often features insightful interviews with those who visit Jodrell Bank from other facilities giving talks and lectures to those that are based there. I was lucky enough to attend the 10th anniversary “Jodcast Live” where the episode was recorded in front of a live audience. Many ex presenters came along to add to the occasion as did Chris Lintott of “The Sky at Night” fame (amongst other things). I’m hoping they have another such event but maybe sooner than the next ten year anniversary! The podcast is most certainly educational and informative. It’s well worth a listen.

Awesome Astronomy: https://www.awesomeastronomy.com – is an unashamedly British (correction Martian) astronomy podcast. You’ll have to listen to it to understand that. It too has a monthly “Sky Guide” episode which is very informative and offers ideas as to what is worth observing in the coming month. There are sections for all aspects of astronomy, lunar, planetary, deep sky etc. The episode is long enough to give more than enough detail while at the same time not being too long. All presenters are used which breaks the narrative up nicely. Then there is the main monthly edition, and it’s here that everything moves to different level. Without doubt, the podcast addresses key issues and news stories of the day, but it’s the presentation style that I particularly like. It’s serious when it needs to be, but it also is not averse to taking a lighter view as well. It’s fair to say there are some genuine laugh out loud moments. This podcast is both informative, and for me, very entertaining. For a few years there were two main presenters, Ralph and Paul, both very knowledgeable in their own fields, and both with years of experience in, well, astronomy. Recently Jeni has joined the team, and while significantly reducing the average age of the team, she has greatly enhanced the listening experience. The ability to not take themselves too seriously adds to the quality of this podcast. You can be actually be laughing while learning something. That’s got to be good. To give an indication, they pride themselves on being the only astronomical podcast never to have received a podcast award 🙂 My comment is that I have to continue to listen to ensure that their standards never quite meet those required to be given an award!

Cheap Astronomy: http://www.cheapastro.com – This podcast is generally short, and typically addresses a key question or issue around science / space / astronomy. It’s presented by Steve Nerlich. Many topics are covered, and despite it being quite short, the explanation of the science surrounding what is being discussed is both accurate and very thorough. I would imagine it must take quite some time to research each subject to be able to give the insight that it does. It’s an Australian podcast, based out of Canberra and is well worth a listen.

Planetary Radio: http://www.planetary.org/multimedia/planetary-radio – This podcast is broadcast weekly and comes from the USA based Planetary Society. It’s generally around thirty minutes long. Bill Nye “The Science Guy” is the CEO of the organisation and usually gets interviewed towards the start of the show. Emily Lakdawalla also features demonstrating great knowledge of her subject.  From the outset I will state that it too is a very informative podcast. The host, Matt Kaplan presents the show with great professionalism. But as a Brit, I have to comment that it’s also very American. It’s almost too professional. Everything about it is produced to perfection. There are no slip ups or errors, or if there are, they’re edited out, unlike UK based podcasts where errors are often left in which makes the whole thing easier to listen to. But I can live with all of that because the content justifies the time spent listening. I especially like their additional (monthly) “Space Policy Edition” which goes into great detail about how the US government and NASA manage to assign priorities and more importantly a budget.

There are other podcasts too, The Sky at Night have and occasional podcast at http://www.skyatnightmagazine.com/podcasts In addition you’ll find some linked to Astronomical societies. But it’s the ones I’ve listed above I keep coming back to. If you were to ask me which is my favourite I’d say for out and out enjoyment, then Awesome Astronomy, but for that little more serious, academic view, then it’s the Jodcast.

Try having a listen yourself if space and astronomy are subjects you enjoy. But remember that just as noise is now the scourge of the short wave listener (see previous post), it’s light pollution that’s the major issue with today’s suburban astronomy, and that the sights I used to marvel at in the night sky at my parents’ house back in the sixties are now no longer observable. For example you have to get well clear of a town these days to be able to see the Milky Way. That’s very depressing.

So, if you’ve read this, and also listen to these podcasts, what’s your favourite? vote now!

 

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Short Wave Listening, then and now.

I should probably count myself lucky. My interest in radio started with short wave listening in the late sixties, a time before the age of the microprocessor, let alone the internet. A time when the twisted copper pair, owned by the then GPO (General Post Office) was used to deliver no more than just a standard analogue phone service. Those halcyon days of giving “three rings” to signify something significant, like I’m ready to be picked up, or I’m setting off now.

It was during this time that I would spend hours tuning around all the different short wave bands to catch that elusive South American tropical band station on 60M, or some North American medium wave DX with a home made loop antenna constructed from bamboo canes and the windings of transformers I’d scavenged from scrap equipment at local factories. Once I’d saved a little pocket money, plus any money I’d received for birthdays and Christmas, I’d buy another cheap, ex forces radio, one of the many that were available on the surplus market. All this long before I decided to get my amateur radio licence when I was 16.

Anyway, I digress. The reason for this post is to highlight that today, in a normal suburban location like mine, it’s now all but impossible to listen to the short wave any more. Back then the simple difference was that the only sources of noise on the bands, besides natural noise such as static and lightning crashes, where things like TV line timebase, badly suppressed ignition systems on cars, motor cycles, and worst of all in the summer, lawn mowers. But all those sources were transitory. Once the car had passed, so had the noise. There was virtually nothing in the house that would impinge on the ability to listen to the short wave bands as nature intended.

Nowadays, many devices in the house are connected, with wifi and bluetooth etc. And worse, most now employ switch mode power supplies that simply ooze interference. Sure, there’s the CE mark. But who doesn’t buy cheap stuff off Amazon? I’ve recently pulled apart some of this kit and found that the design and construction certainly doesn’t meet the accepted standards required to suppress interference.

Lately, the standard (easiest) way of distributing the internet around your house employs PLT, which allows you to (for example) place a remote set top box in another room. The technology uses your house wiring and as a result broadcasts constant noise and harmonics right the way up to 100MHz. So it’s hardly surprising that you can’t tune anywhere now without hearing a constant racket across all the bands. The same technology is used to deliver the internet to you down your phone line. If you’re to be able to even hear anything, you’ve to look to digital signal processing techniques just to make a dent in the noise levels.

I guess the only satisfactory method of getting “clean” airwaves is to take a portable radio out to middle of nowhere and try from there. But that defeats the joy of armchair listening, something which I recently thought I’d try and get back interested in. I’ll try things like getting the aerial away from the house, but then it’ll be closer to another house and hence back to square one. As an experiment I recently powered the radio from a battery and cut (well not literally), the mains to the house. The noise did drop slightly, but I was still picking up all the crud from the houses nearby.

So, the latest copy of World Radio TV handbook (2018) I just got may have to gather dust. It’s unlikely I’ll ever hear anything like I used to be able to. Interestingly one of its lead articles this year is all about noise, and it too concedes that it’s just the way it is now.

Of course I love all the technology that today brings, and no, I wouldn’t want to go back to the good old days, but everything usually comes at a cost. And today, one of those costs is that I can no longer listen to the short wave bands.

The Beast from the East

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IMG_0018The British media are currently making quite a thing about the cold wind hitting the UK from the East. It’s brought a lot of disruption down the east of the country, but it’s not as bad over here on the west coast. But it did get a little chilly last night, so much so the water feature in the garden froze over. It was interesting to see the birds using it to get water this morning. Meanwhile the daffodils are just starting to show. Spring is hopefully getting closer!