The day I saw the Orion Nebula

The Mount Burnett Observatory 45cm monster

The Mount Burnett Observatory’s 45cm monster

Hello lovely readers. I hope you survived the festive season and are tackling 2015 with gusto, alcohol and some laughs.

Those of you who’ve been visiting the Lily Pad for a while know that I love nature and science. Yes I do love things other than cats, quiet, you! In fact there’s a DOG in this post, so there.

If you’re new to the Lily Pad, you’ll find lots of deranged, sweary ramblings about animals and the natural world in general on this site. If you’re not interested in any of these things, ABORT ABORT GET OUT NOW.

I’m a big nerd and I never let my lack of science aptitude outweigh my passion, so despite having almost zero astronomical experience, I was thrilled last week when I spotted a tweet from the lovely Upulie promoting the Mount Burnett Observatory’s annual open day. The Mount Burnett Observatory is, in their own words, “An astronomical society based at Mount Burnett Observatory, in the Dandenong Ranges east of Melbourne. The Observatory was originally built in 1972 by Monash University. In 2011 the site was formally taken over by our organisation and it now has a new life as a community observatory.”

The community aspect of this organisation was soon very obvious. Upulie, The Child, and I rocked up late in the afternoon, hoping to catch a dome talk, the BBQ and then the oh-so-precious night-time stargazing. We weren’t disappointed. The team at the MBO are friendly and enthusiastic and we were soon up in the dome being blown away by the incredibly detailed knowledge of the telescope’s curator, Ken, ably assisted by Barry Cleland, the Observatory’s Librarian. Together they explained the history of the huge monster that was later going to help us peer out into the universe, and were incredibly generous with their expertise and knowledge.

We were encouraged to take a photo down the barrel of the telescope…

Astronomical selfies FTW

Astronomical selfies FTW

… and we even got to wind the dome – outstanding!

Upulie winding the dome. SO GREAT.

Upulie winding the dome. I’m winding a freaking astronomy dome, kids!

We saw the Sun through a solar telescope. OMFG. I SAW SUN SPOTS, PEOPLE! Mind. Blown. But wait, there was more.

After a very friendly BBQ, a paper plane competition (thanks for helping The Child out, Ken, your plane design is now enshrined as the ultimate in our house), and a visit from Dodge, the neighbourhood dog, we enjoyed an entertaining presentation from Perry Vlahos, the Observatory’s Media Liaison, on what we could expect in the skies later that night.

As the sun went down, a variety of other freestanding telescopes appeared and we saw the crescent Moon, and Venus. These words really don’t convey how exciting this all was. I was pretty content by then (SUN SPOTS, PEOPLE! VENUS, FFS!) but there was still some night-time viewing through the big telescope to be done.

Back up in the dome, we saw the moon again. After a bit of negotiation (thanks again, Ken), as the night became darker, I had one of the most thrilling experiences of my life. Looking up in the dark, through the dome aperture, they started to re-position the telescope and swing the dome around so we could view the Orion Nebula. It’s hard to explain why this had such a huge impact on me. As the aperture moved, suddenly different stars were coming into view and I felt an intense connection to this as ACTUAL SCIENCE rather than a tourism experience. No amount of watching The Universe compares to being in a working telescope dome.

Ken did his magic, and in a flash we were looking at the Orion Nebula. Holy crap. An actual piece of deep space, or “deep sky”. There were the four newborn stars at the centre of the nebula, with the swirling mass of gas and dust. And I was looking at them, with my own eyes.

Very, very late in the night, we were ridiculously privileged to see Jupiter, along with three of its moons in transit – Io, Europa, and Callisto. We could even see some of the bands of different coloured gases streaking across the surface. I don’t think I’ve ever exclaimed “Oh Wow!” so many times in one day.

We became members on the spot and I’m looking forward to more adventures and getting to know the MBO team better. My heartfelt thanks to them for making the event so enjoyable.

As we walked to the car, we gazed up at the edge of the Milky Way, so depressingly invisible from my back yard, and marveled.

The Moon. The Sun. Venus. Orion. Jupiter.

What a brilliant day, what a stunning sky.

I can’t wait to go back.

You can see the Mount Burnett Observatory’s website here, Facebook here, and Twitter here. I recommend you take a look.

Addendum: We also saw two satellites but I forgot because JUPITER and ORION and SUNSPOTS and TIRED. Sorry.

Have you ever been in an astronomical observatory?


Steve the Working Urchin

Steve the Working Urchin

Steve the only Working Urchin on Twitter

Meet Steve. Steve is a sea urchin. He’s a WORKING sea urchin.


I met Steve when the lovely Lindsay Waldrop was curating RealScientists* on Twitter. She tweeted a photo of him, saying “This is Steve. He’s a working urchin.” 

Regular visitors to the Lily Pad will understand why I immediately took to Steve. He’s not just any old urchin. He’s a WORKING urchin. With a Twitter account.



Lindsay has kindly indulged my insanity allowed me some time with Steve to interview him about life in the tank, the universe, and how tasty white star fish are.

Hi Steve. How are you today?

Hi Frog. I am lonely because the caretaker has not been in to see me because of anchor ice (e.g. snow storm). It is very distressing, but I think I will survive another day.

Oh Steve you poor thing. I’m sure your caretaker will get back to you as soon as she can. I’ve never seen an urchin like you before (I’m a frog, not a fish, after all). Can you explain to us what kind of urchin you are?

I’m a very special creature. Christopher Mah, an echinoderm expert at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, identified me as a slate pencil urchin, Eucidaris tribuloides. His blog is here:

A WORKING slate pencil urchin. Very cool. What’s your favourite thing to eat?

I very much enjoy munching on algae that grow in my tank. I have been also know to eat the caretaker’s sea squirts, and the small white starfish that steal attention from me on occasion. They are far less adorable than me.

I’ve heard some terrible things about starfish so I don’t blame you for eating them. So how did you end up in your tank?

I spent some time in a fish store before the caretaker brought me home in a bag of water. This was stressful, as I have decided I do not care for rides in the car. I like my new tank home much better than a bag of water.

What do you like most about being a working urchin?

I enjoy the plentiful supply of algae and visits by the caretaker and my undergrad friends.

Is there anything you don’t like about being a working urchin?

My hermit crab tank-mates. They are annoying and crawl all over me. I wish I could eat them, but they are too fast to catch.

So who’s your best friend?

I suppose the caretaker, but don’t tell her I said that. I like to keep some mystery in our relationship.

Your secret is safe with me. So, apart from being crawled on by cheeky hermit crabs, what’s the worst thing that’s every happened to you?

Once, there was a problem with a pump that cleans the tank. It pumped out half of my tank’s water before the caretaker realized what was happening! I hid under a rock until the caretaker found me and replaced the water. I am still quite traumatized by it.

That sounds awful. Let’s talk about something happier. What’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you while working as an urchin?

I caught and ate one of those annoying white starfish that steal attention from me. It was tasty.

I like to hear when those evil starfish get their comeuppance! I met you through your caretaker but I see you have your own Twitter account now. How are you enjoying Twitter?

I am enjoying the attention very much. As an adorable and superior being, I deserve attention.

Indeed you do! Speaking of attention, what did  a handsome urchin like you do for Valentine’s Day? Did you have a hot date?

I was alone because of the anchor ice, with only hermit crabs  and snails to keep me company. Over lunch, the snails and I had a very slow conversation about the hermit crabs. It wasn’t the hot date I was hoping for. I blame climate change.

Oh. Well that’s awkward. I’m sure you’ll have lots of admirers now you’re on Twitter. In one sentence, why do you think people should follow you on Twitter, Steve?


Thanks so much for chatting with me today Steve. The algae is in the post.

Any time, Frog. Tell your friends to follow me. THE ONLY WORKING URCHIN ON TWITTER. 

Steve sleep

Steve heading to bed for the day

*@realscientists  is an account curated by a different scientist each week and it’s awesome not only because I met Steve through it, but also because of the fascinating, educational and often surprising content. Get on it, Twitlings.

Of mushrooms and disenchantment

“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization, and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.” —Max Weber

Max Weber – sociologist – is talking about the loss of the sacred, the loss of our feeling of awe and amazement and the sense of magic. This loss has been brought on by the age of science, the extreme – and sometimes zealous – desire for rationality.
The loss of enchantment.

I get the desire to rely on science rather than “non-science”. Science has given humans an immense advantage in the survival of our species. I believe though that we have to be careful how far we take this reliance on our left brains.

There’s a danger in believing that if it can’t be proved, it’s not real.

I’m not a religious person. I don’t believe in God. So I guess I’m an atheist. I don’t believe we should all be living our lives by any set of rules linked to an external force that will reward or punish us for our behaviour.

But I look at some of the atheists I know and think they take it too far. Being an atheist isn’t about intellectual superiority, and shouldn’t become a cause pursued with religious fervour. Scepticism is taking over as a new religion. Take a look in the mirror you guys, you’re more like the people you’re being intolerant of than you realise.

I do believe in something other. I believe there’s more to existence than science can currently prove. And I like that. I feel no desire to debunk every possible belief that hasn’t currently been proved. I don’t believe that we must be rational at all cost. Where’s the fun in that?

I also don’t feel the need to preach to and convert everyone I know to the great god science.

Weber says that “God, magic, and myth are now replaced with logic and knowledge.”

In Western civilisation, I believe he’s right.

What is the long-term cost to art, creativity, literature, as we leave belief behind us? What will this cost us if we continue to worship only at the altar of science?
What does it mean to our sense of morality, ethics, and values, if all we care about is rationality?Time will tell. For me though, civilisation without magic, without the unknown, a sense of the divine, the enchanting stuff that makes your hair stand on end because it triggers something deep in your more primitive brain, will be a pretty dull place.


Many thanks to Julie Klop for bringing Weber to my attention.

A touch of magic in dull old Burwood is what prompted this post. This is a very large ring of mushrooms – a Fairy Ring – around a tree down the road from our house. I couldn’t get an aerial view to show it properly, but here it is – first as is:

And now showing the actual path of the mushrooms.

Magical, huh?


Where do you find the enchanted in your life?