IDAHO, Light and the Human Spectrum

Today’s the UN’s International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (you might be seeing a fair bit of #IDAHO flashing across Twitter for that reason), and this year it falls in the UN’s International Year of Light. As a gay astronomer, both these things are very close to my heart.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about being gay, but it is one of the first times. I’ve tended to hold back from it because I didn’t want to be seen as anything other than my primary identity: a human. That human also happens to be a scientist, and that scientist also also happens to be gay. I’m really at peace with all these identities – probably now more than at any time in my life so far. But I’m paid in the public domain, research and teach at UCL, and it’s a job requirement for me to publish my scientific results, plus there’s Twitter; you can quickly tell I’m a scientist. As for being human: seriously, only the weirdest of A.I. projects would produce something that yaps like me, so you can probably safely assume I’m homo** sapiens. And third of all: I’m gay. But it’s not on my business card, and that’s always presented an interesting sort of problem when it comes to the overlap with my first two identities: is it in my interest, or anyone else’s, to talk about it at all?

(**if you giggled, we might just become friends)

I actually think it doesn’t matter that I’m gay. I think it matters that I’m a bit different. That’s why IDAHO[TB] and awareness efforts like it are so important: there is no such thing as a Standard Human, and the sooner we get past this, the sooner we’ll be able to let everyone in our communities flourish. This is also kinda important for the survival of our species: we have some really, really scary problems banging on our door, fellow humans, and we’re going to need every brain we can have, operating at full capacity, to solve them. If they’re worrying about being scape-goated, demonised, beaten up, or barred from being a real member of society (yep, that’s a lot of what people worry about), they won’t be doing what we need them to do.

A few things have happened in my life recently to make me think it was worth speaking up. Most recently, they’ve included the incredible support in Ireland for removing the second-class status of same-sex couples, in the run-up to the Equal Marriage referendum. Now, I’m from ‘The North’ (i.e., Northern Ireland), but most of my extended family and many of my friends are in or from the Republic. As a result, my sample of the internet has been filling with some pretty wonderful articles, videos, tweets and Facebook posts. Colm Tóibín’s public lecture at Trinity College Dublin, this week, contained a gently powerful argument for visibility (the 5th paragraph in the Irish Times coverage, but the whole thing is really worth reading). And I warmly recommend David McRaney’s excellent podcast on how disclosing your circumstances as a victim of prejudice is a vital tool in getting people to see you as human (rather than ghetto-ising, or existing in an overlapping but never-touching world).

Now, I’m in a safe situation where I can say I’m gay, and that safety’s important. Telling people you’re ANYTHING other than straight carries a risk if you’re somewhere where it is illegal, not accepted, culturally taboo, rejected by your family, or any number of things that could land you in trouble. So I’m NOT advocating that everyone reveal their sexuality so we can instantly live in Fluffy Bunny Magical Luck Dream Joy Wonderland (if that’s an actual place, I’m sorry – I couldn’t find you on Google, and I needed a metaphor). The fact is that I feel like I can, and I’m lucky that’s true. (Oh, and I’m otherwise in the hyper-priveleged majority. Like, HYPER. So there’s that…)

There’s a final aspect to all this for me, though. One of the greatest joys of the multi-dimensional continuum of LGBTIQ+++ (helpful explanation of those termsand more) is that it reveals that for so much of our history, our thinking was too simple – just as much as when we thought the Earth was flat, or that all humanity had the same skin colour as us and our neighbours, or that everything revolved around the Earth. All the observational evidence tells us that there is so much more to life, and we learn, every single time we find evidence that breaks the old models, that we adapt our understanding, and that we reach a new and more revealing view of our existence as one species of ape on this pale blue dot.

IDAHO, Light and the Human Spectrum

Egypt and the farce of the righteous majority

As I crack open this story, Desmond Dekker’s “Pretty Africa” shuffles onto iTunes. It’s a sentimental sausage of a tune, but it slowly reminds me I’ve visited one place in the entirety of Africa, once, and that wasn’t Egypt. So I don’t have any first-hand experience of the place I’m about to discuss. But I read, and when you see a cry for help, most humans read a little closer…

Recently, Egypt’s government has taken to monitoring its citizens online, including what they post on Facebook. This can’t come as a surprise to anyone in the US or UK, because internet monitoring is exactly what our governments have been doing to us, too! So if our lot are doing it, why shouldn’t everyone else’s, right?

(Aside: there’s a good write-up here of some of the pro-privacy arguments – spolier: it’s not a FAQ with questions like:

“I’m a benefit cheat/seeking to bring down your decadent western way of life. How can I best hide my private e-mails about crime plans from the government/security services?”

Well worth a read.)

Anyway, the governments now in power in many of the countries that experienced the ‘Arab Spring’ are not quite so worried about losing votes in the next general election if they’re found out to be snooping. Like, maybe they just decide to ignore or rig the general election results? I’m not going to get into who Egypt’s government should be, ‘cos I have no clue, but I DO have a clue that what the current government is doing to many humans right now, in this until-recently more liberal African nation, is extremely inhuman.

The history of what happens when a lot of people experience significant, simultaneous discomfort is now a disgusting cliché. Either the absent rights of a minority are campaigned for (note that they don’t even have to be won, just campaigned-for) and a privileged group perceives that it is now threatened or has already lost its relative position in society; or there is social upheaval, the economy goes down the tubes for a bit, life starts to bite – hard – and people want a solution. The solution, it is decided by the political cliques, isn’t to hold to account the political cliques (you saw that coming), but to bully someone else – someone vulnerable, like a minority that can’t fight realistically back. That bullying tricks you into feeling you’re doing something about your problems, and makes you feel like you’re not at the bottom of the heap yourself. That bullying, though, takes forms from stigmatisation, through vilification, persecution, accusation, segregation, incarceration, vigilante/militia beatings on the streets, maybe dragging people them from their homes first, to physical humiliation, rape, torture, mutilation, eventually to murder. It’s a broad spectrum, I admit, but put your hand up if you want to be anywhere on it? Nope – I didn’t think so…

What’s worse is that people frequently get to be in several places on that spectrum at once. In Egypt right now, Egyptian citizens are being arrested by their own police for things like “debauchery”. When they get to prison, they can experience threats of rape and undergo unethical “anal examinations” by the Forensic Medical Authority, presumably to see how “debauched” they have been.

That these people are perceived to be gay, or transgender is beside the point. Beside the point morally, because they’ve DONE nothing wrong: it’s really their EXISTENCE that’s de facto being made illegal, they simply ARE wrong – a Kafkaesque charge that you cannot defend against. And it’s beside the point legally, because there’s no legal basis for their detention: no legislation has been passed. Debauchery isn’t even a well-defined thing in Egyptian law. Sections of the media share some serious shame in all this, too, brutishly violating citizens’ (viewers’!) rights in the name of joining the moral superiority band-wagon, stirring up vilification and publishing names and photos of people they want to accuse. Of… something…

In almost every respect, I’m in the hyper-privileged demographic:

  • male,
  • Caucasian (although I do enjoy the comedy decision between White (British) and White (Irish) in questionnaires),
  • middle-class,
  • Christian up-bringing,
  • higher degree with the entirety of my education paid for (sorry, but it’s true),
  • native English-speaking,
  • from a wealthy European country
  • and my passports let me travel at will to loads of countries without even needing a real visa.

The only persecution that I had to get angry about recently was that I couldn’t get married in my own country if I wanted to, but that’s now taken care of. So what have I got to complain about? Even if homophobia were erased in Britain tomorrow, I would still have to complain about the ill treatment that OTHERS face. And consider that it doesn’t take much to find yourself in the gun-sights. People are inclined to make divisive mountains out of molehills of difference, especially if they feel like they would be on the wronged and/or righteous majority side of the division that’s created. It makes them feel better, in more ways than one, and that’s particularly powerful when everything else that’s happening to them is (frankly) pretty shitty. So would you be so sure you’d be in the moral majority on every single measure conceivable? Look at my profile: I would still have been blamed for causing floods (not the super-power I would’ve chosen) or of wanting to redefine other people’s marriages (seriously, I really, really don’t.)

These moral-superiority divisions are always a fallacy, because difference is everywhere, and it’s heartening to see so many people now celebrate and value diversity, because to exclude people from society is to hold us all back.

Once a persecution machine gathers pace, it’s hard to stop it before it wreaks horrible damage. But if the larger majority from around the world scrutinises this immoral, illegal persecution, we can find ways to pressure the persecutors, and even if we can’t stop it from outside, we can lend our support to the people who are fighting it. We let them know that they’re part of a larger community of humans out there who believe what they believe, and reassure them that they shouldn’t doubt themselves – it IS their government that’s wrong and not their existence, or the existence of their friend or sister or nephew. The people with power have invented a “problem” to which they have a quick & nasty “solution” – and, too often, it happens because they won’t face up to the real problems that people have.

If you read this far, I appreciate it. And if this issue moves you to tweet about it, you can use the hashtag:
to show your awarenss and support, and add any of these if you have room:


Egypt and the farce of the righteous majority

Solar wind visualization at NOAA SWPC

The IDL Data Point

George Millward and his colleagues at the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) use IDL, among other tools, to study, monitor and forecast solar events that impact GPS, power grids and communications networks on Earth. On the WSA-Enlil Solar Wind Prediction page, Dr. Millward uses IDL Object Graphics to visualize output from a model of solar activity and Javascript to animate the result as a time series. Here’s a sample frame from the animation:

WSA-Enlil solar wind prediction at 2013-03-15, 00:00 UTC

(Click to embiggen.)

From the WSA-Enlil Solar Wind Prediction page, a description of this plot:

The top row plots show predictions of the solar wind density. The bottom row plots show solar wind velocity. The circular plots on the left are a view from above the North Pole of the Sun and Earth, as if looking down from above. The Sun is the yellow dot in the center and the Earth is the green dot on…

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Solar wind visualization at NOAA SWPC

Calculating the period of the sunspot cycle

Nice to see solar data being used to illustrate a fundamental tool of the astronomer: the FFT :o)

The IDL Data Point

Two weeks ago, I used the sunspot number data provided by the Solar Physics Group at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to demonstrate positioning plots in window. This week, I’d like to show how to calculate the period of the sunspot cycle.

If you haven’t already done so, download the sunspot numbers file and place it in your IDL path. Read it with the astrolib READCOL procedure:

file = file_which('spot_num.txt', /include)
readcol, file, year, month, sunspots

Next, transform the sunspot series to the frequency domain and compute magnitude and power spectra:

mspec = abs(fft(sunspots))
pspec = mspec^2

(Aside: FFT: it’s all you need.)

I’d like to display the power spectrum as a function of frequency. This requires a few statements to set up a frequency vector based on the time data from the sunspot numbers file:

sampling_interval = 1/

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Calculating the period of the sunspot cycle

Reminds me of how the UCL rocket programme got started: when the government said “‘Ere, we’ve got all these rockets we’ve been knocking out. Want some?”

(I think that’s a verbatim quote)

The e-Astronomer

Not often I write two posts in one day, but here is an unexpected piece of news. It seems that the US National Reconnaisance Office have given two free telescopes to NASA. Its all explained at this NY Times article. They are as big as HST but have a wider field of view. They were designed for looking down of course.  Apparently there has been a secret study team and their conclusion is that one of these beasts would be perfect WFIRST, which had seemed to be kicked into the long grass.

They don’t exactly have the rest of the money yet or an actual approval … but the WFIRST fans are talking about shooting for 2020 … a year behind Euclid.

Ooooo what fun. Spot of healthy competition.

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