back to article Boffins unveil sharpest ever stellar snaps

Astronomers working at the Palomar observatory have taken some of the clearest ever pictures of space. A US and UK team of stargazers have taken advantage of new adaptive optics technology to out-do even the Hubble Space Telescope for sharpness. The problem with taking pictures of stars from the ground is that the atmosphere …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Please stop using the word 'Boffin'.

  2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

    re. Boffins

    we like the use of the word boffins.

  3. Steve Evans

    Ta for the info...

    I heard about this last night on the BBC news... Unfortunately their coverage was

    "Clearer pictures of space have been released, and they were taken from the ground, thanks to some technology invented by British scientists... An now the weather."

    They did chuck up a couple of picture on screen over the voice over, but no before/after snaps, well if they were they didn't say!

    Wayne Rooney stubs his foot and we'll have 5 minutes of x-rays of the nuckle draggers dented hairy toes... Some funky technology and images that have taken a zillion years to reach us, and you're lucky to get 10 seconds...

    Oh no BBC, of course you're not dumbing down.

  4. Ru


    Please continue using this word.

    As regards the article, it seems rather odd that they've only started doing this now. I recall that people have been using webcams to to take hude numbers of images of the sky, and then automatically filter out the fuzzy ones and stack the rest to make a clear, crisp image with even quite cheap equipment. No fancy optics required (do a search for webcam astrophotography if you like).

    Unless this image stacking technique isn't anything new at Palomar either, and the article just skipped the bit about the new optic technology?

  5. Jon Double Nice

    Please DO NOT

    stop using the word 'boffin'

  6. Chris Miller

    Some thoughts

    A very clever technique (and British technology, dammit!), which may well allow kit that's no longer leading edge (like Palomar) to get a new lease on life. But I wonder if it could be used on leading edge kit, because (presumably) it must require substantially longer observation times, while you're waiting for a sufficient number of these 'lucky' moments to occur and observing time on these instruments is in great demand.

    It's noticeable that the pics on the Cambridge U web site show relatively 'bright' objects. It's also the case (to my untutored eye) that the image of the Cat's Eye nebula doesn't show as much detail as existing images - e.g.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Seems so 1940s, and is a term only used by wholly unscientific journalists. See also 'eggheads', 'men in white coats'.

    I would happily gouge out the eyes of anybody using this term with a broken conical flask.

    So there.

  8. DoubleD

    "Yes" to Boffins

    I'm a Yank and I say, the Reg is a Brit tabloid -- so keep "boffins!"

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    i always wondered

    Why we have that word. I mean saying "Oh Who's Boffed?" means who has farted.

    The brighter you are the windier you become or what? Is your IQ also related to PPH?

    And if that is the case are smellier animals/pets brighter amongst their peers?

    We need a boffin to answer this.

    (Dons protective eyewear)


  10. Andy Worth


    Is a great word

  11. Michael H.F. Wilkinson

    difference with webcams

    I think the difference with using webcams on moderate size (amateur) telescopes lies in th efact that the apperture of the Hale telescope is 200 inch. In small telescopes a major problem with "seeing", as the problems caused by atmospheric turbulence are called, is that the images "swim" or "hop" arround a bit in the field of view. This is far more easily corrected using realignment (or registration) software. Blur occurs too, and this is partly corrected by selection of the best frames e.g. 30 % of frames. In very large telescopes, "hopping" or 'swimming" is averaged out over the large aperture of the telescope, and blur is the main problem (in particular as their theoretical resolution limit is beter). This is harder to deal with.

  12. Francis Boyle Silver badge

    Why did I know before I clicked

    that the comments here would be almost entirely about the use of the word 'boffin'. Boffin is what the Reg does so get used to it. Can we now talk about adaptive optics and when I'll be able to get some for my camera.

  13. Francis Boyle Silver badge


    I thought 'boffing' was something a little more pleasurable than farting. Coming soon "Extreme Boffing 23 - Fun with Test Tubes".

  14. Bryan Seigneur

    A light-day

    A light-day is not too much for a human to contemplate. While the Pluto probe will take, what, 12 years to just go 9 light-hours, we don't care all *that* much about getting it there quick. It's not inconceivable that we could send a craft 24 light-hours in an amount of time that wouldn't waste too much of a human's life away.

  15. Mike Moyle

    More Boffins!

    We love boffins.

    Ignore the whingers. (Another fine Britishism.)

    More Boffins, less whingein'!

  16. James Pickett


    "a term only used by wholly unscientific journalists"

    Apparently not.

    I trust that El Reg will (in the best Private Eye tradition) use the term as often as possible from now on.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: Re: Re: Boffins

    Hell yes! I read the Reg specifically because they have a sense of humor about journalism. They do great at conveying the pertinent facts of the story, while cutting out the spin and fluff, and replacing it with funny and incite-full comedy.

    If I wanted to read a bland, strictly factual article I'd go somewhere else. Keep up the good work!

  18. Gary Trner

    Fine resolution

    One light day apart, 25,000 light years away. If I've done the math right (not guaranteed), that's only about 0.0226 seconds of arc. Not bad resolution for sixty year old optics.

    One photon sensitivity? Fantastic! That's the key to the whole thing. The rest is image processing.

  19. daniel

    But what they are not telling us is...

    How many sheep make a boffin?

  20. Joseph Zygnerski

    "Boffins" is

    a term that means nothing to Americans.

    As for the actual subject of article, it's very interesting, though it reminded me very much of what one does with a digital camera, that is, takes a lot of pictures in the hopes that one comes out right. They just have the technology to take more pictures than a human could ever possibly take.

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @ Five Hats

    If you don't like boffin, perhaps you should cease using any technology developed by anyone who claims to be one.

  22. !!11oneeleven


    AFAIK adaptive optics involve an artificial guidestar (laserbeam), the fuziness of which is in direct relation to the 'adaptive' part of adaptive optics, which in turn involves a sectioned mirror where single sections can be moved to "adapt".

    (I'm wondering who'd be so sad to "enhance" his webcam in that way...)

    On a completely unrelated note, I lost count of how many times I read about some boffins pleading to not use the word boffin here on ElReg. Dear boffins, please stop that, it is not funny anymore and it won't happen...

    Btw, light years are soooo yesteryear. Use sheep years instead...

  23. Adam Azarchs

    Adaptive optics...

    are used in EVERY modern telescope. Palomar had them added in after the fact and an additional stage in the optics chain, unlike Keck and other newer ones were the primary mirror can actuate. The technology was used first at Mount Wilson, and then Palomar later, as an evaluation and prototyping stage before going on to Keck and the others.

    The new thing here is the idea of throwing out blurred frames. I can't see it working too well with very dim sources, though, since the Poisson noise is too large for such short exposures. So space telescopes aren't going away any time soon.

  24. Emo

    Boffins cont'd

    If Boffins is to be removed from El Reg vocab, will it be replaced by Tefal Heads?

    Equally unknown to Americans I hope!


  25. Luther Blissett

    "Boffin" for Americans

    IT having completely ruined the ability to spell, I just looked up in the New Shorter Oxford Dictionary which I have on my laptap for such moments (well, I have to justify a hard disk upgrade somehow), so I can preach the gospel:

    boffin /"bQfIn/ n. slang.M20. [Origin unkn.]

    1 An elderly naval officer. M20.

    2 A person engaged in backroom (esp. scientific or technical) research. M20.

    boffinry, -ery n. boffins (sense 2) collectively; the activity of a boffin: M20.

    Unfortunately Roger's Profanosaurus has no CD-ROM edition, but Reg readers have caught the essence of its other meanings.

    Now I'll just get my outer garment, usu. made of cloth and having long sleeves, and orig. worn by men and boys. Without specification now esp. a sleeved outdoor garment worn over indoor clothes for warmth; also (esp. in coat and skirt) a woman’s tailored jacket worn with a skirt; formerly also, a close-fitting tunic coming no lower than the waist. ME.b transf. With qualifying colour adj. A person wearing a coat of the specified colour, esp. as a uniform. E16.<unknown>c = coat-card below. L16–M17.<unknown>d = coat-money below. E17–E18.2 A petticoat. Usu. in pl. obs. exc. dial. LME.3 In translations of ancient languages: any of various styles of tunic or other outer garment for the body. LME.4 More fully coat of arms. A person’s or corporation’s distinctive heraldic bearings or shield. LME.5 A natural covering or integument:a An animal’s covering of hair, fur, feathers, etc. Also (rare), an animal’s hide. LME.b Anat. A membrane etc. enclosing or lining an organ. LME.c A skin, a rind, a husk; a layer of a bulb etc. M16.<unknown>6 Clothing as indicating a profession, class, etc. L16–L18.7 Naut. A piece of tarred canvas or (now usu.) of rubber fixed around a mast, bowsprits, etc., where they enter the deck, to keep water out. E17.8 A layer of any substance, esp. paint, covering a surface; a covering laid on at one time. E17.9 fig. Anything that covers or conceals. E17.1 car coat, dress coat, frock-coat, greatcoat, housecoat, Mackintosh coat, mandarin coat, Melton coat, overcoat, raincoat, russet coat, surcoat, tailcoat, trench coat, tuxedo coat, waistcoat, etc.coat of arms a coat or vest embroidered with heraldic arms, a herald’s tabard; (see also sense 4 above).coat of mail a linen or leather jacket quilted with interlaced rings or overlapping plates of steel, as defensive armour.cut one’s coat according to one’s cloth: see CLOTH n. 4.pull a person’s coat: see PULL v.trail one’s coat = trail one’s coat-tails below.turn one’s coat desert, change sides.b blue-coat, redcoat, etc.8 FIRST coat. rough coat: see ROUGH a.Comb.: coat armour <unknown>(a) a coat of arms (both senses); (b) blazonry, heraldic arms; <unknown>coat- card a court-card; coat dress a woman’s tailored dress resembling a coat; coat- hanger a clothes-hanger; coat-money Hist. money for providing a coat for each man in military service, esp. a non-parliamentary tax exacted by Charles I; coat-tail a tail of a coat; on a person’s coat-tails, undeservedly benefiting from someone’s progress; trail one’s coat-tails (for someone to tread on), seek to pick a quarrel.B v.t. 1 Provide with or clothe in a coat; dress. LME.2 Cover with a surface layer or successive layers of a substance as paint, tin, etc.; (of a substance) cover (a surface) in a coat. M18.

  26. J

    Boffins, boffins and more boffins...

    Being Brazilian, I first learned of this word directly from El Reg. And being a boffin myself, I vote it stays! Not that there is in fact any poll going on or anything like that anyway...

  27. Dave

    re boffins

    Hmm at the Met Office we called them "twitchers" .

    Seriously though, hats off to the boffins a. for having more fun at work than me, b. for the damn fine pictures and c. for breathing new life into legacy kit.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Re: ‘But what they are not telling us is...’

    "How many sheep make a boffin?"

    ...Unless you're in that land to the west (which shall remain nameless), in which case the question is "How many boffins make a sheep?"

    (Cue "FotW" redux!)

  29. Anthony Horton

    @ Ru & Adam Azarchs

    Firstly, on the important issue at hand, I'm firmly in the pro-boffin camp. Now the science bit:

    The record-breakingly superficial BBC article doesn't make it clear but 'lucky imaging' has in fact been in use by professional astronomers for a while (for approximately of a decade I'd say, the Cambridge University astronomers were already doing it in 2000 when I was working with them), and the technique has since filtered down to amateur astronomers. Adaptive optics isn't new either, as Ru says all the major observatories now use it (though the primary mirrors do not in fact do the correction for the atmosphere, the actuated primaries of modern telescopes handle slow distortions of the telescope whereas the atmospheric distortions are still taken out by smaller, faster moving mirrors downstream). What's actually new is combining lucky imaging and adaptive optics, which gives better images than either technique alone. Without adaptive optics lucky imaging is only really effectively on small(ish) telescopes, say 1-2m diameter, because the larger the telescope the greater the effect of the atmospheric distortions and the luckier you have to be to get a sharp image. With adaptive optics though the distortions are much reduced and a worthwhile fraction of the images are sharp even on a larger telescopes such as the Palomar 200", which have intrinsically higher resolution. Both techniques need a bright star near what you want to look at as you need something visible in very short individual exposures to tell whether the image is sharp/measure the atmospheric distortions, but you can partially get around that limitation by attaching frikkin' lasers to your telescope.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Joseph Zygnerski

    Oh dear, profoundly sorry old chap. What were we thinking of using a well known and traditional English word in an English publication to describe one of our English back room johnnies. How awfully inconsiderate of us, please accept our most humble apologies for the utter confusion this must have caused you.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Boffin hell...

    Is it just me or does anyone else worry about people pointing lasers down the barrel of a telescope... 'Just put your eye to the lens Wilson old boy...', certainly beats the old boot-polish-on-the-rim trick.

    Of course, not being a boffin means that I consider a telescope to be a £15 Mattel toy - ooh wait... there's another worry...

  32. Mats Koraeus

    Boffin, as per the OED

    boffin, n. (slang)

    1. An ‘elderly’ naval officer.

    2. A person engaged in ‘back-room’ scientific or technical research.

    The term seems to have been first applied by members of the Royal Air Force to scientists working on radar.

    3. Brit. colloq. In weakened use: an intellectual, an academic, a clever person; an expert in a particular field; esp. such a person perceived as lacking practical or social skills. Cf. EGG-HEAD n.


    boffin(e)ry n. boffins collectively; (also) the activity of a boffin.

    Seems perfectly adequate.

  33. Chris Barrett

    I'm a boffin and so is my wife

    Keep the term. Its no worse than someone being labelled a so-called 'expert'.

    Any boffins out there able to recommend a good telescope to replace my 30 year old Tasco rig? My budget is about £200.

  34. Mike Pellatt

    @ Chris Barrett

    I'd disagree

    Trotting out a so-called "expert" is far, far, far worse than labelling someone a boffin.

    When someone thinks I'm an expert in some field or other, I trot out the hoary old definition of same.

    An "ex" is a has-been and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure.

    No more needs to be said

  35. Chris Barrett

    @Mike Pellatt

    So in actual fact, you are agreeing with me - I was defending the use of the word 'boffin' not 'expert', ie. as long as the term 'expert' is in use 'boffin' is just dandy.

  36. Andy


    Who cares what the yanks think. The can't even pronounce A - LOO - MIN - E - UM correctly. Long live the Boffins and send the experts off to the colonies

  37. Jay

    I'm Boffin.....

    the wife!!!

  38. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    hmm my phone does that!

    My Mobli does that! Night mode stacks multiple images to provide a clear image.

    (I have a photo of St Pauls Cathedral at night with a ghostly leg on a pedestrian crossing you cant see the rest of the person as they were moving, only 1 foot remained still while the image was captured!)

  39. Dan

    Jounalists Continue To Use The Word "Boffin": Shocker

    The world of journalism was mildly shaken today by a further use of the word "Boffin" to conjour images of men with beards and jumpers doing things that the normally dumb general public cannot fathom. One journalist commented, "I've no comprehension of anything more than endless ramblings about Big Brother, so to see people make fuzzy pictures clear is like the reverse of doing the 10 lines of coke I've just done".

    A real Astrophysicist was unavailable for interview, due to an excess of alcohol and MDMA., his jumper was also missing. Jounalists are now worried that the concept of "Boffin" is as cliched as "some hack journalist preaching to the lowest common denominator", while newspaper editors widely agreed they "didn't give a toss".

  40. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Hardly Ground Breaking Physics Though is it?

    This old-hat adaptive optics technology has been around for years so why are people making such a fuss of it now? It's not as if we all get excited because Vauxhall bring out another version of the Corsa, is this really any different? Physics should be looking at getting the basics right. The Michelson-Morley experiment has never been shown to have a null result, when are they going to attack this elephant under the mattress and leave these Physics "peas" alone? What is the point of sharper pictures if they aren't used for anything? It's a sad day when there are more comments about the word boffin than about Physics on a nominally Physics story. If you want some new ideas to think about, may be right and may be wrong, you should have a look at at least it is thoughtful if nothing else and the word "boffin" doesn't appear even once.

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