Samantha Rolfe

Astronomy and Astrobiology

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Coming soon – Monday 21st January: A total eclipse of the Moon

On Monday 21 January 2019, all of us in the UK will be able to watch a total eclipse of the Moon. This will be the best Total Lunar Eclipse viewable from the UK until 2028! Those looking out on Monday will see that the Moon is a deep red colour whilst it is in “totality”. It is this red colour has led to the name ‘Blood Moon’. The middle of the eclipse, called Greatest Totality (GT) is at 05:12 GMT in Hatfield, Hertfordshire (times for key points of the eclipse are highlighted in bold further down). So an early start if you want to see the entire event! As of writing it is forecast to be clear in Hatfield and the surrounding area.


 A composite image showing the different stages of a Total Lunar Eclipse as seen from Earth. 

A total eclipse of the Moon occurs because the orbits of the Sun, Earth and Moon align such that the Moon moves directly into the shadow of the Earth. An alignment like this is also known as a syzygy, a (usually) straight line arrangement of three or more Solar System objects. However, unlike a Total Solar Eclipse where the Moon blocks out the disc of the Sun, we can still see the surface of the Moon during a Total Lunar Eclipse.  This seems like it wouldn’t be possible, as the Earth is blocking the light from the Sun, but during totality light from the Sun is scattered through the Earth’s atmosphere and still reaches the surface of the Moon, an effect known as Rayleigh Scattering. Rayleigh Scattering is what causes the sky to be blue and sunsets to appear red.

Therefore, the scattered light reaching the Moon is from the sunsets and sunrises all around the world.


A cartoon showing the physical explanation of the different parts of the Earth’s shadow. 

The Moon will be high in the early morning sky when the astronomical phenomena begins, at an altitude of around 45°, WSW. The Moon enters the partial shadow of the Earth, the “penumbra” (pen, from the Latin for ‘almost, nearly’ and umbra for ‘shadow’) at 02:36.

Partial eclipse begins at 03:34, here you will see the curved edge of the Earth’s shadow begin to fall on the Moon.

Totality is when the Moon is in the full shadow of the Earth, the “umbra”, beginning at 04:41, lasting 62 minutes until 05:43, this is the portion of the eclipse the Moon will appear red.

So if you’re not a morning person, perhaps you can wake just a little early, before 05:43, to catch some of all the Earthly sunrises and sunsets dancing off the Moon’s surface.

Partial eclipse ends at 06:51 and it is all over at 07:48.

Somewhere between three to five Total Lunar Eclipses occur approximately every 5 years, but from any one location on Earth, the chances of viewing one is approximately every few years. For example, the next few Total Lunar Eclipses visible from the UK, which include greatest totality, are: 16th May 2022 (GT 5:11, occurs as the Moon sets), 31st December 2028 (GT 16:51), 18th Oct 2032 (GT 20:02) and 14th April 2033 (GT 20:12, occurs as the Moon rises). The previous Total Lunar Eclipse visible from the UK was on 27th July 2018 (GT 21:21). As you can see from these dates, they don’t occur very often and the time that they occur can be relatively ‘unfriendly’ if you don’t want to get up early or stay up late to watch it.

A Total Lunar Eclipse creates great photography opportunities as well as experiencing something amazing that doesn’t occur on any other planet in our Solar System (or maybe in the entire Universe!). Unlike a Solar Eclipse where you need special filtered glasses to avoid eye damage, Lunar Eclipses are safe to view with the naked eye.

Tips for watching the Blood Moon on Monday:

  • You can watch from your house if you don’t want to go out into the cold winter morning. Otherwise, a garden, balcony or local park will suffice; pack a folding chair or blanket, wrap up warm and, a thermos of hot drink and some snacks (who doesn’t want to snack while watching an astronomical phenomenon), a camera and friends and family.
  • Go to bed early on Sunday night 😊
  • One more thing: fingers crossed for clear skies.


Times and dates source:


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#30DaysWild – Top Tips for Star Gazing

I am excited to be included in this campaign for #30DaysWild and present some of my top tips for star gazing.

Thank you for visiting this page – here are links to some further information related to the top tips:



  • Other phenomena to watch for:

Moonbows (what I was talking about in the video, proper name: Moon ring, 22° halo)

Moonbows (proper)

Sun dogs

Noctilucent clouds


  • Report a fireball sighting:
(a fireball is a brighter-than-usual shooting star (aka meteor) that lasts longer than a second and might have varying colours, obviously break apart and/or leave a longlasting trail


  • Night sky atlas apps/websites:


  • Sighting opportunities for the International Space Station:


  • If it is cloudy, you can spot different types of cloud instead!


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Navigating ants, hotting up in 2016 and lunar eclipse: Science Feature with Sam Rolfe 30-01-2017

Original post:

Ants use Sun and step count for navigation

Ants brains are smaller than a pin head but they can navigate to a greater extent than many other larger species. They have been found to use the Sun and visual cues in their environment. They have to carry large pieces of food back to their nests so have to rotate their body position independently of their direction of travel to achieve this. If the Sun was obscured they went in the wrong direction. If they were moving backwards, they stop, drop the food, and double check their direction before carrying on.

Understanding how ants navigate informs robotic research including designing algorithms to guide robots, including self-driving cars.

Ants have also been found to count their steps. A pile of food was placed at a certain distance from their nest, once they had been to the food pile they had small stilts made of pig bristles attached to their legs and rather than making it back to their nests some went up to 50% further than they were supposed to. However, they soon adapted to the additions, and by the next day they could find their way to and from the food pile without difficulty.


2016 hottest year since records began

Despite contributions from a known climate cycle phenomena called El Niño, which among other impacts on weather patterns influences increases the global temperature, 2016 was the hottest year on record. This adds to the growing and substantial amount of evidence of man-made climate change due to the release of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

97% of climate scientists agree that it is a man-made contribution that is causing a year on year trend of increasing global temperatures. It is real, it is a fact, it is not a bargaining chip for businesses to make money or for political gain, it is not in the realm of opinion. Every individual should take action in our effort to reduce the man-made impact, it is not just a problem for government, councils or businesses.

There are many pages of information on how you can reduce your personal impact on climate change, but here are a few things to put into action if you don’t already.

  1. Recycle or re-use. Make a conscious effort to buy products with a recyclable packaging or choose products that have little to no packaging. Recycling is being made easier and easier for us, there is no excuse for recycling not to be a daily habit. Dispose of items like electronics and batteries responsibly.
  2. Reduce your energy use. For example, turn lights off when you leave a room, turn off computers, televisions and monitors not just on standby, replace bulbs and appliances with more modern energy efficient equivalents.
  3. Think about transport. Walk, bike or use public transport whenever possible. Think about your car, could you replace it with a more energy efficient model. Or at least ensure your tyres are correctly pressured and you aren’t carrying a lot of weight, empty the junk out!
    3a. If you aren’t driving, please don’t sit in your car with the engine idling, if you are unlikely to be moving within 30 seconds, turn your engine off! Save petrol and hence money and reduce the release of car fumes into the atmosphere.
  4. Insulate your home and reduce your water use.


Scientist of the Month

John Hunter (1728 – 1793)

Thought of as the founder of scientific surgery. He made many contributions to medicine including:

A study of inflammation, teeth and bone growth, gunshot wounds, understanding the nature of the digestion and the first complete study of the development of a child, proving that the maternal and foetal blood supplies are separate.

However, to advance his knowledge of the human body he used to pay grave-robbers to bring him cadavers to practise surgical procedures.

In his later career, he prepared over 14,000 samples from 500 species, which were donated to a museum, which now reside at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London.


Night Sky This Month

The evenings are dark for the next week or so as the Moon heads in and out of New Moon phase, so good viewing for other objects, especially deep sky objects.

There is a penumbral lunar eclipse on the 10/11th Feb, starting at 22:34 10th Feb and the time of greatest eclipse is at 00:45 on 11th Feb finishing at 02:53. The Moon will get darker(, but as it is not a total lunar eclipse the face will not turn a red colour which is due to when the Moon is in the full shadow of the Earth the Sun’s rays are refracted through the Earth’s atmosphere).

In the early evening the very bright object in the West is Venus, visible for the next few weeks – it too has phases, which are visible through binoculars or small telescopes. It will become more and more crescent-like over the next month.


Twitter: @smrolfe

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Forensics: A Review

We the public have a greater understanding of crime scene investigation than ever before along with the science that supports investigations. This is due to the numerous popular television shows, and even in Hollywood, that present the forensic process. However, to keep audiences gripped, some technologies and techniques are exaggerated, which can cause confusion as to the extent of the reach of current scientific forensic contributions to court cases.

To balance this, the true crime and popular science book Forensics, The Anatomy of Crime (320 pages) puts all the current forensic techniques under the microscope (ha) and explores the history and evolution of each with details of trials and pioneers of the techniques as case studies backed by current experts.

Those interested in the current form of forensic science and its power to help solve otherwise unsolvable crimes with fair insight into the limitations, would devour this book going in at any knowledge level, no prerequisites required. As it is an overarching study of the whole field it would also serve as a perfect springboard for those beginning to study in these areas or looking to apply their knowledge of biology, chemistry, computing or problem solving to name but a few cross‑discipline applications.

This comprehensive work was expertly researched and constructed by Val McDermid, a seasoned crime fiction writer who uses authentic scientific techniques throughout her novels and has known many of the experts she interviewed for years. However, a warning – some of the details are not for the faint-hearted, a discussion of forensic techniques easily leads to case studies of heinous crimes that were solved due to improving forensics.

Available at your local, independent or otherwise bookshop or online retailer ISBN: 9781781251706.


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Gut: A Review

Book Review

It is my gut feeling that few of us think that our gut feeling is as important as what our heads or hearts feel. Classically they conflict, we should follow our heads or our hearts, but you really really should trust your gut.

Giulia Enders weaves a funny and informative narrative about all things to do with our largest organ, I must insist you STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING, go buy this book…

Available at your local, independent or commercial bookshop or online various, including: Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body’s Most Underrated Organ 


Now that you’ve read it, I don’t need to review it and I am sure you will agree that you have learned more about your body in those ~250 pages than you have since school.

In case you didn’t read it (why not?! I thought the above prose was pretty damn convincing), I will put down a few things here that I hope will make you want to read it.

Firstly, this book is so easy to read, it is a joy to learn about how you should be pooing (yes, you’ve been doing it wrong all these years), about how your gut thinks independently of your brain and the illustrations are just so quaint, yet highly informative!

Secondly, despite having a gut feeling for millennia, it is literally in the past decade (and even then, barely that long) that science is finally waking up to the idea that our gut actually has something to say and we should be damn well listening!

Only someone as passionate about poo as Giulia can make you give a shit about yours.

Did you know that babies in the womb are totally sterile!? As soon as they enter the birth canal or are born by caesarean section, they start acquiring the microbes that will shape their gut flora for the rest of their lives.

There is a brain/gut link, though the gut can do it’s own thinking, sometimes it has to demand that the brain listen (and vice versa). This includes times of stress (and hence, stress-related gut pains/stomach ulcers/constipation etc…), otherwise the gut just gets on with things without us realising as it is made of unconsciously controlled ‘smooth muscle’.

Furthermore, our gut flora (the many billions, trillions? of microbes that live in our gut and on average contribute 2 kg to our overall weight) can also affect our mood, with links to depression and anxiety. Simply (not simply) – happy gut, happy brain – the link between the gut, diet (and hygiene, i.e. contact with bad bacteria), and hence our gut flora, and depression is becoming clearer with each new study.

A healthy gut flora (good bacteria) leaves less and less room for any bad bacteria that we may encounter to latch on and make us feel unwell.

How’s your poo looking? Check out the Bristol Stool Scale to check how you are doing. For info on how to achieve the perfect poo, get this book!

Tend to your gut garden and introduce good flora such as Lactobacillus acidophilusLactobacillus rhamnosus and Lactobacillus casei Shirota by eating natural yogurts or yogurt drinks that contain live cultures. (A favourite breakfast of mine: cornflakes/muesli (~15g), flaked almonds and/or seed mix (~10g) and natural yogurt (~100g) with a sprinkle of cinnamon (total: ~225 kcal).)

Ever wondered why being unwell can be made so much worse by an unfortunate “shart”? Or why long distance runners “shouldn’t trust a fart after X miles of running”? I’ll let Giulia explain at her award winning Science Slam talk, where only someone as passionate about poo as her can make you give a shit about yours. Get talking about your gut and you’ll realise that “the anus [and this review] is only the tip of the iceberg”.

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Review – BBC 1, “The Truth About…”, Episode One: Sugar

Available on BBC iPlayer, (as of posting) for 18 days

I heard bits and pieces about this programme at work as we chatted over lunch, so caught up on iPlayer. The main thing from the show that came out of our lunchtime discussion was the idea that all sugars were processed by your body the same – e.g. that brown sugar is just as bad for you as white – having heard in the past that brown is better for you than white, choosing brown sugar at the coffee shop was pointless it turns out… though I do prefer the taste. These types of myths, busted! (“Everything in moderation!”, my colleague would declare, that’s her motto).

As someone who has fairly recently, in the past two years, been attempting to get fit and healthier, my relationship with sugar is not one I had considered too closely. To lose weight I initially cut down my fat intake, but of course sugar is converted to fat if you don’t move about! So, though I reduced sugary snacks, I never considered the sugar in the other foods I was eating, i.e. mainly “savoury” items! And “healthy” options like cereal bars too would seem to be packing high levels of sugar!

How much sugar are you eating? – the World Health Organisation (WHO) says 12 teaspoons a day is ok, but has begun to recommend that we try to keep this to six! (1 *level* teaspoon = 4 g).

I use the app MyFitnessPal and it recommends that my base rate intake of sugar (which would increase according to the level of exercise I do that day) is 11.25 teaspoons of sugar (WHO, you’ve done it again!).

According to “The Truth About” sugars that are in fruits don’t count towards your recommended daily allowance, so this is where MyFitnessPal falls down slightly because it doesn’t/can’t differentiate between fruits and other sugars when you input items (perhaps something for the future…?)

What I liked about this programme was that it really made you think about all the sources of sugar in our diets. We were up searching through our cupboards, looking at our regularly consumed items to see how much sugar was in them before the programme was even halfway through.

It combined “ask the audience” – out on the street, getting the public to guess how much sugar they thought would be in certain everyday items (always hideously underestimating! Really made it obvious that we, generally, still have no idea what we are eating!); “case studies” – four volunteers had their diets laid bare, how much sugar they consumed per day, tests to see how it has affected their health and a challenge to cut down and hopefully improve their long term health by avoiding health issues such as obesity and diabetes; and “ask the scientist” – various scientists from different fields in the area discussed different aspects of sugar and our diets. All very interesting! Especially the bit about food packaging, there is so much information on packets now, but if you don’t know how to use it then it is no good. If an item of food has 22.5 g of sugar per 100 g then that is a high sugar content. Check the back of the packet, not just the portioned version of the sugar content on the front, e.g. a 30 g portion of x contains y g of sugar, that’s not that helpful in understanding the overall sugar content compared to other items which may have different portion sizes. Skittles 90.3 g per 100 g… just so you know.

Take the six teaspoon challenge! Can you cut your sugar intake down to six teaspoons (24 g) or less a day?

Nonetheless, while watching said programme I munched on two cookies. Which had 13 g of sugar per cookie!!!! Whoops. Challenge starts *now*!

I’m looking forward to the second episode: The Truth About…. Calories, especially since I’ve been watching them rack up on MyFitnessPal for almost a year now!

Enjoy! And good luck!

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Help name Pluto’s lumps and bumps! (before 7th April 2015, be quick!)

The International Astronomical Union is working with the New Horizons team are going to be naming features seen on Pluto and Charon once the spacecraft completes it’s fly-by this summer (14th July) (and therefore have actual pictures of these features… …).

They need our help deciding!! You can vote on names already suggested or suggest names yourself (as long as they fit into predetermined categories and unfortunately no living persons will have a feature named after them!).

Visit ASAP! Voting closes on 7th April!

You can see current voting results and discuss nominated names, don’t forget to check out the rules before submitting any suggestions!

I’ve used a lot of exclamation marks in this post, but it is only because this is a very rare opportunity and I am very excited. It is not often we get to see the surface of planet for the first time!

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West Herts Drive Time Science Correspondent 23/03/2015 – Scientist of the Month – Stephen Kuffler

Professor Stephen Kuffler (1913 – 1980)

A Hungarian-American, regarded as the Father of Modern Neuroscience.

  • He gave lectures and influenced the research at the University of Sydney.
  • Founded the Harvard Neurobiology department in 1966.
  • Made contributions to our understanding of vision and neural coding.
  • Known for research on neuromuscular junctions in frogs and presynaptic inhibition.


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West Herts Drive Time Science Correspondent 23/03/2015 – Night Sky This Month – March/April

4th April Full Moon (Total Lunar Eclipse – Eastern Asia, Australia, Pacific Ocean, Western Americas. In Britain there will be one on 28th Sept 2015)

13th to 18th April – International Dark Sky Week, join in by reducing light pollution (turn off outside lights where possible) and enjoy dark skies.

22nd/23rd April Lyrids Meteor Shower peak. Moon sets shortly after midnight allowing for a dark sky to view the show, approximately 20 meteors per hour. Produced by debris left behind by comet C/1861 G1 Thatcher.

25th April International Astronomy Day


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West Herts Drive Time Science Correspondent 23/03/2015 – News – Differences isolated for the first time between autistic and non-autistic brains

Differences isolated for the first time between autistic and non-autistic brains

Following the development of a new method for analysis MRI scans of the brain, scientists in the Dept. of Computer Science at the University of Warwick have been able to create an accurate 3D model of the brain.

Over a billion individual pieces of data were analysed covering the 47, 636 areas of the brain, called voxels. This data originated from 523 people with autism and 452 people without autism.

The researchers isolated 20 areas of difference where the connections between the voxels in the autistic brain were stronger or weaker than the non‑autistic.

The areas related to face expression processing involved in social behaviour and another in spatial functions, which the researchers propose are linked to the computations involved in theory of mind of oneself or of others and a reduced connectivity in these regions may be contributing to the symptoms of autism.

This methodology may be able to isolate similar areas in people that have other cognitive problems including obsessive compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and schizophrenia.