Nova Lupi 2016 update

October 5, 2016

The nova in Lupus (ASASSN-16kt) continues to decline, having peaked at a visual magnitude of 5.6, declining to 6.5 in less than a day.

The plot shows my two binocular observations before the weather in Adelaide went loopy (as opposed to Lupi), the last under cross-hairs at magnitude of 7.2. It’s now down to around magnitude 9.0.


The sky is clear tonight, and may be okay for a couple more days, so I might attempt some tri-colour DSLR observations. Tonight’s out due to an ASSA meeting. Typical!🙂

ASASSN-16kt update

September 28, 2016

I made a second observation of the nova in Lupus last night (Sep 27). It had faded from a visual magnitude of 6.7 on Monday to 7.2 (both in purple below). Observations since then show a further brightness decline.


I was pleased to see my first observation counted among those submitted by Elizabeth Waagen (AAVSO) for inclusion in “telegram 4322” from the the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Harvard (my first). See the AAVSO alert from Elizabeth for more details.

There was no chance of another observation tonight after the storm here in Adelaide today; no power so no light pollution but no clear sky either. I’d say another day or two will go by before I can observe it again.

Nova in Lupus!

September 26, 2016

ASASSN-16kt was discovered in the constellation of Lupus on September 24 by the All-Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae with data from a 14″ telescope in Chile.

The discovery magnitude was 9.1 with nothing greater than magnitude 17.5 previously known at that location.

I made a visual estimate of the nova at magnitude 6.7 tonight (September 26) from suburban Adelaide with 7×50 binoculars. At the time of writing, only 8 observations by 6 observers had been submitted to the AAVSO International Database including three Australian amateurs: Terry Bohlsen, Rod Stubbings and myself (highlighted at right), two Argentinians (Gustavo Ballan and the near-omniscient Sebastian Otero) and one Brazillian (Alexandre Amorim).


Other than photometry (visual or image based), amateurs are increasingly taking the spectra of bright novae, and ASASSN-16kt is no exception, with Terry Bohlsen (New South Wales) taking an early spectrum soon after discovery.

These Stellarium screenshots show the location of the nova in Lupus as the south-west sky appeared at around 8pm tonight from Adelaide (wide and narrow field):

Lupus constellation borders.png


The AAVSO finder chart (7.5 degrees) is shown below in a similar orientation:


I was interested to see a request from a researcher, Laura Chomiuk, for high-speed photometry of the nova to:

…to test a recent theoretical prediction of Ken Shen’s: that novae should show fast periodic oscillations in their optical light curves, if gravity waves help expel the envelope.

Time will tell whether the nova has peaked short of naked eye visibility. I hope to make another observation tomorrow night but the forecast does not look favourable for at least a couple of days thereafter.

At least this nova waited for the cloud-dominated winter we’ve just had to pass by.

Mother Teresa: saint?

September 18, 2016

The September 2016 Richard Dawkin’s Foundation newsletter highlighted an article by Joe Nickell titled: St. [Mother] Teresa and the Miracles Game:

Around the world, the Catholic faithful clamor for their beloved late priest, nun, or other personage to be added to the roster of saints. Pope John Paul II (1920–2005) heard them and lowered the requirement from three verified miracles to two (one for beatification, another for canonization), creating numerous saints and beatifying over 1,300 others—more than had all his predecessors together.


Source: Mommy dearest, Mother Teresa not so saintly

Mother Teresa’s canonisation (confirmation as a saint) occurred on September 4 after the “necessary” two miracles were “identified”, the first for beatification (in which the Pope declares the dead saint-to-be as being in a state of bliss) in 2003, the second for sainthood.

For the beatification, the case of an Indian tribal woman was selected. Monica Besra claimed to have been cured in 1998 of stomach cancer, in the form of a tubercular tumor, after she placed a locket with a picture of Mother Teresa on her abdomen.

Nickell goes on to say that the doctors treating the woman said the cyst (not tumor) had continued to receive treatment even after the death of Mother Teresa. Mrs Besra’s husband is quoted as saying: “It is much ado about nothing. My wife was cured by the doctors and not by any miracle.” He conceded that his wife “…felt less pain one night when she used the locket, but her pain had been coming and going. Then she went to the doctors, and they cured her.”

Mrs Besra herself still believed in the miracle, while admitting she was treated by doctors in hospital. “I took the medicines they gave me, but the locket gave me complete relief from the pain.” It is of course not outside of the realm of possibility that the placebo effect could account for the pain relief. In any case, it appears that the claim that Mother Teresa cured Mrs Besra, is unfounded.

As a an aside, why do some consider it acceptable to thank God for the honest, hard work of doctors and nurses? The fact is that God can’t lose. If a patient dies, it was His will. If they live, He is praised. If only gods were held to the same account as people…

The second case, the one that took Mother Teresa over the line to sainthood was that of a Brazillian man who had lapsed into a coma due to some kind of brain infection (the details differ with the source). His priest prayed for Mother Teresa to intervene with God, and the man supposedly awoke suddenly as a result. As Nickell points out, it may of course simply be that the treatment he was undergoing was effective, after all.

Again from Nickell:

In both cases “miracle” was defined as it always is in such matters as “medically inexplicable.” The evidence is therefore not positive but negative, resulting in a logical fallacy called argumentum ad ignorantiam “an argument from ignorance”—that is, a lack of knowledge. One cannot draw a conclusion from “we don’t know”—least of all that a miracle (supposedly a supernatural occurrence) was involved.


Doctors—including Catholic doctors—should refuse to play the miracles game. If the Church wishes to honor a doctrinaire nun, let it do so without an affront to science and reason.

Miracles, like the existence of gods, should be treated with the same scrutiny as any other phenomenon. As Gregory A. Clark wrote in The Salt Lake Tribune, Sainthood for Mother Teresa exposes the delusion of religion:

Seeking intellectual respect, Pope Francis recently declared that God is not “a magician, with a magic wand.” But as the pope’s canonizing Mother Teresa shows, he’s happy to promote God’s magic when it makes for good PR.

and in response Clarke points out that:

One miracle is as possible — or impossible — as another. Preach that an omnipotent deity can perform miracles, and you also preach that at other times He chooses not to.

Apart from the more well publicised evils, especially of late, the corruption of the Catholic Church is again revealed in a casual disregard of evidence and abuse of logic.

But just suppose for a moment that the idea of sainthood made sense. What kind of a saint is Mother Teresa?

In her 1979 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Mother Teresa had this to say:

And I feel one thing I want to share with you all, the greatest destroyer of peace today is the cry of the innocent unborn child. For if a mother can murder her own child in her womb, what is left for you and for me to kill each other?

The Catholic News Agency provides the transcript of a 1954 speech by Mother Teresa to the National Prayer Breakfast, some of which is eerily similar to the Nobel Peace Prize speech 25 years later. After similar sermonising about abortion, we see this, also shared as a quote by the Faithful Catholics website:

Once that living love is destroyed by contraception, abortion follows very easily.

It is bit of a stretch to see how the conclusion follows from the premise of either of the statements:

  • if a mother can abort a pregnancy then we are more likely to commit murder.
  • if (some form of) love is destroyed by contraception then abortion easily follows.

Indeed, the nature of the “living love” that is “destroyed by contraception” is unclear and seems vaguely reminiscent of Monty Python’s “every sperm is sacred” song from the Meaning of Life.

To those of a less dogmatic persuasion, there are surely greater “evils” than abortion, as a child affected by the Zika virus attests to.

Preceding this in the 1954 speech we have the following pearl of wisdom:

I know that couples have to plan their family and for that there is natural family planning. The way to plan the family is natural family planning, not contraception. In destroying the power of giving life, through contraception, a husband or wife is doing something to self.

There’s nothing surprising about this stance from the viewpoint of a Catholic worldview of course, but there are well-known problems that can be directly linked to religious sanctions against contraception, e.g. the spread of HIV, poverty, overpopulation.

Arguably, aside from the abuse of children by priests, the command to the faithful not to use contraception is one of the greatest evils of the Catholic Church.

Mother Teresa founded the Missionaries of Charity in 1950. Visitors to the Home for the Dying in Calcutta have reported that patients were placed on basic stretcher beds (indeed, video footage shows this), strong pain relief was rarely used (in a “hospice”, where people are dying in significant pain), so too for antibiotics, and needles were observed being rinsed under running water rather than sterilised. There were also reports of patients who could have recovered with proper treatment not being sent to a hospital, including the case of a 15 year old boy with a kidney infection that went untreated by antibiotics; a transfer to hospital was prevented.

This despite associating with and receiving prizes from shady individuals such as Jean-Claude Duvallier, the right-wing Hatian dictator and amassing funds from corrupt individuals such as Charles Keating, who sent Mother Teresa millions and lent her his private jet when she visited the United States. Instead of creating world-class medical facilities with such funds, the Missionaries of Charity spread to more than 100 countries.

Yet when sick later in life, for example when she required a pacemaker, Mother Teresa herself received top medical care in the West.

Although she and her missionary sisters and volunteers no doubt provided some comfort to the sick and dying, there was a cult-ish element to the work of Mother Teresa. For example, she is quoted as saying:

I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is being much helped by the suffering of the poor people.

and of telling a terminal cancer patient in extreme pain:

You are suffering like Christ on the cross. So Jesus must be kissing you.

Mother Teresa seemed at least as interested in using the poor and their suffering as an opportunity for conversion to Christianity as anything else, the ultimate point of missionary activity after all.

Watching the short (24 minute) film by Christopher Hitchens, Hell’s angel (YouTube), provides a quick way to revise your pre-conceptions about Teresa of Calcutta.

Coincidentally, a few weeks before the canonisation, I finally made time to listen to the audio version of Hitchen’s book: The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which provides further insight.

Hitchens visited the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta and acted as a Devil’s Advocate in the case for her canonisation, giving testimony to the Archdiocese of Washington. As is so often the case, he says it best:

Mother Teresa was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.

300 variable star observations

September 8, 2016

I recently passed 300 variable star observations, having started in 2010.

301 obs

That’s a tiny number compared with prolific Australian visual observers like Rod Stubbings or those doing CCD photometry (e.g. of eclipsing binary variable stars) who quickly reach the thousands, such as fellow ASSA member Robert Jenkins or AAVSO’s Mike Simonsen.

Still, I’m pleased with my few hundred plodding individual observations of 16 variable stars, namely:

  • pulsating variables: R Car, l Car, W Sgr, X Sgr, L2 Pup, eta Aql, alf Ori
  • novae: T Pyx, V1369 Cen, V339 Del, Nova Sgr 2015 No. 2
  • eclipsing binaries: zet Phe, BL Tel, V Pup, eps Aur
  • the massive, once naked eye visible, unstable star: eta Car

Most of these are visual observations, and most of those were with 7×50 binoculars:


264 visual obs

I started making DSLR photometry observations in early 2015 after taking Mark Blackford’s first AAVSO CHOICE course on the subject:

36 DSLR obs

While visual estimates are quick and convenient in a time-poor life, photometry requires some effort from imaging through to processing and analysis, but the additional accuracy and error characterisation are satisfying, as is the ability to capture multiple bands in a single image, Johnson V and B primarily.

My last DSLR submission was in April. I’m looking forward to some nicer weather so I can get out and do more soon, in addition to the visual estimates I sneak in between the clouds.

Census 2016 resource

August 8, 2016

Not sure how to respond to the religion question in this year’s census? provides pragmatic questions and answers.

Edit: Now if only I could actually complete the census online…

Another Gravitational Wave detection

June 16, 2016

Another gravitational wave detection by LIGO has been announced!


The June 15 announcement page points out that while the signal was weaker than the first detection due to the black hole masses being smaller (14 and 8 solar masses vs 36 and 29):

…when these lighter black holes merged, their signal shifted into higher frequencies bringing it into LIGO’s sensitive band earlier in the merger than we observed in the September event. This allowed us to observe more orbits than the first detection–some 27 orbits over about one second (this compares with just two tenths of a second of observation in the first detection). Combined, these two factors (smaller masses and more observed orbits) were the keys to enabling LIGO to detect a weaker signal. They also allowed us to make more precise comparisons with General Relativity. Spoiler: the signal agrees, again, perfectly with Einstein’s theory.

The news release continues:

Our next observing interval – Observing Run #2, or “O2” – will start in the Fall of 2016. With improved sensitivity, we expect to see more black hole coalescences, and possibly detect gravitational waves from other sources, like binary neutron-star mergers. We are also looking forward to the Virgo detector joining us later in the O2 run. Virgo will be enormously helpful in locating sources on the sky, collapsing that ring down to a patch, but also helping us understand the sources of gravitational waves.

Gravitational Wave astronomy does seem to have arrived!


Commentary on Q&A’s church and politics

May 16, 2016

ABC’s Q&A on April 25 2016 discussed the relationship between the (Christian) church and politics and I’d like to make some observations from watching this. The panel consisted of:

  • John Haldane, Visiting Professor and Catholic intellectual
  • Julie McCrossin, (Uniting) Church elder and journalist
  • Ray Minniecon, Indigenous Anglican Pastor
  • Rev. Tiffany Sparks, Anglican Priest and representative for A Progressive Christian Voice;
  • Lyle Shelton, Managing Director, Australian Christian Lobby.

So, there was a Catholic, a representative of the Uniting Church (UC), two Anglicans, and a person of undeclared denomination. No Church of Christ, Lutherans, Baptists, Seven Day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. At least protestants and catholics of some sort were broadly represented I suppose.

I suppose it was an interesting discussion, albeit within the narrow confines of the Christian church. John Haldane was easiest to listen and seemed the most lucid, ironic, given the evils of the Catholic church.

Julie McCrossin suggested that people of other faiths (e.g. Muslim people) should have been included on the panel and mentioned that her particular UC encouraged columns from other religions in their newsletter. I wonder whether pastafarians, adherents of Jainism (a gentler, saner religion than most), Hindus, Buddhists, Satanists, or Scientologists are also welcome to speak in such a column? Or aren’t they “serious” religions?

This inclusiveness struck me as both positive and odd at the same time. Positive because dialogue of any sort is better than none. Odd because it seems to suggest unitarian leanings. Just as I was once encouraged not to be a fence sitter, an agnostic at the time, and so found my way to atheism, I would have thought that people of faith should make up their mind what counts as valid belief and what does not.

How can inter-faith dialogue even at the highest level recognise world views that are fundamentally incompatible and in principle, immune to revision? The truth is it really matters what billions of human beings believe and why they believe it.
(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

What bothers me about such talk of inter-faith dialogue, and certainly as expressed on Q&A, is that secularists including atheists are often not mentioned at all or only in passing, as if they couldn’t be moral agents. True, secular humanists, atheists and agnostics are the odd ones out here. Still, inter-faith dialogue just seems too much like the blind leading the blind or at least, the biased leading the biased.

John Haldane challenged Ray Minniecon about the claim that aboriginal people owned the land before white settlers arrived. A sensitive topic. There is of course, a need to acknowledge the awful details of our white settler history far more than we do, not just the romantic versions of it, the ANZAC spirit, and so on. But honestly, we really all need to get a grip. The idea that any human owns a country, an area of land, is very odd, and arguably just an artefact of the world we have constructed.

I have great sympathy with the idea that generations of aboriginal or other can live on a landscape and develop a  deep attachment to it; even a few days spent bushwalking can deeply affect you. But such experiences do not imply ownership.

Ray Minniecon made a reasonable yet familiar remark about white settlement having happened only a short time ago compared to the aboriginal settlement of Australia. I found myself puzzled by a follow-on comment from him about Christianity also being a blip in time compared to aboriginal settlement. It left me wondering why he was a Christian minister, given his apparently disinterested view of the importance of the appearance of Christ on Earth.

Of course, all human events are a blip in time compared to the age of the Universe. Again, we need to get over our pompous self-importance. In approximate terms, we have in reverse chronological order (and gap-riddled):

  • White settlement of Australia: 200 years ago
  • Birth of Christianity: 2000 years ago
  • Aboriginal occupation of Australia: 50,000 years ago
  • End of the reign of dinosaurs: 65 million years ago
  • Formation of Earth: 4.5 billion years ago
  • Big Bang: 13.8 billion years ago

I’ve always found the Cosmic Calendar quite compelling. Popularised by Carl Sagan on Cosmos, the whole timescale of the universe is compressed into 12 months. Nothing remotely human begins until late morning on December 31. The original settlement of Australia by seafarers didn’t happen until 11:58pm and the last few thousand years of human history occupies the last 30 seconds of the day!



The totality of human civilisation on Earth is indeed a blip on the cosmic timescale. Arguably the most important thing to have happened in that final 30 seconds of December 31 was the invention of the Scientific Method, the only reliable way to understand the world. Not faith.

One of the greatest challenges facing civilisation in the 21st century is for human beings to learn to speak about their deepest personal concerns, about ethics, spiritual experience, and the inevitability of human suffering, in ways that are not flagrantly irrational. We desperately need a public discourse that encourages critical thinking and intellectual honesty. Nothing stands in the way of this project more than the respect we accord religious faith.

(Sam Harris, Letter to a Christian Nation)

Another early morning rainbow

February 23, 2016

About to ride to the bus station this morning; greeted by another nice rainbow:


Brought to us by the laws of physics. No pot of gold evident. Pity.

LIGO Gravitational Wave detection: the work of many…

February 13, 2016
I think it’s worth noting that 3 of the authors of the LIGO Gravitational Wave detection paper are listed as deceased (two in 2015 and 1 in 2012) and humbling to realise that, especially in a field like cosmology or particle physics, a scientist could spend his or her working life on something like this and never see the sought-after result.
It also emphasises that Science is usually not about a single person working in isolation, but about the work of many people collaborating and competing over a long period of time.
An ABC post about David Blair’s work on this for 40 years further underscores the point.
Congratulations to the hundreds (from the author list alone!) of scientists, engineers, and support people who contributed in some way to the first direct detection of gravitational values 100 years after their prediction from general relativity by Einstein.