Light-speed doubt

February 27, 2012

Lets see if we can link the faster-than-light neutrinos with Richard Dawkins.

This morning I listened to Start The Week (yes, I overslept …)  featuring a bunch of soft-core religious types, positioning themselves as the cuddly middle between Fundamentalism and Militant Atheism. Reminded me a bit of politics in the 90s. After many years of Socialist Worker Party nutters and in-your-face Thatcherite nasties slugging it out, Toady Blair smooths in, all calm and nice, bundles up the masses in the middle, and sweeps to power. Well anyway, lets not carry the analogy too far or I will start writing a whole different blog post. Lets just say that mostly I am happy with the idea that bitter polarisation does not help the rational cause. The more religion becomes a kind of fluffy lifestyle choice the better. Might even try one on for a bit sometime. Something with a bit of mystical chanting sounds fun.

What threw me though was that the cuddly ones were holding up doubt as a strength of good religion. One described himself as an Agnostic Christian. Hang on there Jim, isn’t Doubt our banner ? If there is one thing that defines the scientific approach to life, its scepticism.

Of course the paradox of scientific scepticism is that it has been so successful for four hundred years, that humankind has built up an amazingly reliable body of knowledge and understanding. In practice, if a student interrupts to say “Aha ! but Newton’s Law could be wrong, and then  everything else in this Lecture is wrong !”, we sigh patiently and say “just stick with me for a while here …”. Truly maximal doubt can be grossly inefficient.

So instead we have a kind of hierarchy of doubt.  Or maybe layers of an onion catches the situation better. Although it is rarely quantified, we have a clear sense  of which things to doubt, in which order. This is why the Opera neutrinos story  is so interesting. You don’t casually suggest that the speed of light limit can be broken. But the Opera folk did such a very very careful job of checking everything, and were so up front about their result and analysis, that people had to take it seriously. The betting was still very heavily on some mistake being found, but enough layers of the onion had been peeled that there was a non-zero chance of reaching the core.

Now the Opera team have announced  that they have found two technical problems, including a dodgy connection. So it looks like Einstein is safe for now. Jon Butterworth has written a nice Guardian science blog post  making the case that they were nonetheless right to publish. Where would we be if we avoided publishing things that seemed to contradict our pet theories ?

I think the striking thing about the FTL neutrinos is not just that the Opera team were prepared to think bold thoughts, but that the whole community was prepared to question Einstein if necessary. I think this is what separates doubt in science from doubt in religion. For many religious folk, surviving doubt strengthens their faith; others oscillate in an endless nervousness; and a few can have a catastrophic loss of faith and abandon their religion. But its always a personal issue. You never hear of an entire community of co-religionists trying to collectively decide whether their holy book is correct.


SKA Teaser

February 19, 2012

Meanwhile, ground based astronomy continues. US chums pointed me at the NSF budget request. Of course this has to get through the House and the Senate, but so far astronomy seems to be holding its own, and LSST is proposed for a modest boost this year – $7.5M development, up from $4.0M last year. Construction starting in FY2015 still looks like the bet. Of course the scary thing in NSF land is the Portfolio Review . Stuff will close – but what ?

Back here in sunny Manchester, SKA Incorporated, which is of course a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Zinc, is teasing us.  The Big Decision is whether to build the beast in South Africa or Australia. This is a non-trivial economic and political issue, not just a scientific one. Things are hotting up. Like Telescoper, I was recently invited to a “webinar” to help promote the Australian case. (See Peter’s post  on this). I can’t claim to be as principled as Peter – I failed to respond because I was too darned busy. But it did also strike me as unnusual by astro-project standards.

And now, a press release about the site selection ! In the usual manner, I learned about this first from a Tweet by Paul Crowther, which then took me to an STFC announcement which had a link to a statement by the project. A site selection recommendation has been made ! Oh hang on.. its says “recommendation”, not “decision”… A committee has completed the evaluation, but the real decision will be taken by a Meeting of the Members about April-ish. Until then, nobody ain’t saying nuffing. They are just teasing us. Jeez.

I have always been puzzled by engagements. Stay with me. Why don’t people just get married ? But some people even announce when they are going to get engaged. Do they expect even more presents ? Anyway. SKA. Nothing has been built. They haven’t decided where or when they will start building. But they have publicly announced their intention to decide in the near future.

Warning ! Cartoon simplification approaching !

Sixty years ago radio astronomy was way ahead of the curve. Key scientists came out of the war with an understanding of how government actually worked, and the government understood that technology and science went hand in hand, and that academia could be useful. Money flowed.

Twenty years ago radio astronomy was sleepy town. Gentleman amateurs doing the same old science. Drinking tea in their tweed jackets in labs that still looked like they came straight out of Quatermass and the Pit. Lost the knack of making a pitch at PPARC committees etc.

Then somehow they woke up and it all swung round. SKA is a tightly controlled machine.  A couple of years back there was a lively discussion on this blog about future ground based facilities, but nobody was pitching for SKA. At a workshop I was attending, I mentioned this in passing to an SKA type I knew. Ahh, said s/he, this was discussed on a telecon the other day, and it was decided the policy was not to join in the e-Astronomer discussion.  My eyes bulged. It was amazing they even discussed the blog, and even more amazing they had a policy.

That evening, I mentioned this obliquely – without naming any names – in a blog post. The next day Person X told me I’d gotten them into trouble. They knew who it was. Is there some kind of SKA GCHQ ?

Well, probably one shouldn’t attribute too much technological power to SKA. As I write, their web site ain’t working.

By the way, it is a very groovy project. Just wish they chill out.


WFIRST Cold Wave

February 15, 2012

Saluton Mondo. Awfully sorry about the gap in service. Busy and all that. Anyway.

So here I am in Sunny Pasadena. Last time I was here it was, like, a hundred degrees or something. This time its overcast and cold ! The locals are apologising and wearing double jumpers. But it seems appropriate because I am here for a meeting  about an infra-red astronomy mission, WFIRST . As many of you will know, WFIRST has a weird history, and is a sort of merger of various proposed missions for dark energy (JDEM), supernovae (SNAP), microlensing (err… something), and IR sky survey (NIRSS). Its pretty exciting but … Euclid is scooping some of that science, and JWST  is eating all the money.

Old chum Richard Griffiths (aka Griff), gave his NASA HQ overview the same day as the President’s proposed FY2013 budget was revealed, including the NASA budget. He wore his tin hat. You can read an overview of the impact on science in this Nature News article, but here are the astro headlines :

  • JWST clearly supported : extra $109M this year
  • Planetary science takes the hit : Exo Mars collaboration with ESA looks dead
  • WFIRST explicitly zeroed

What we were told here at the meeting is that WFIRST may or may not be the next flagship, but if it is, the faucet will not turn on until JWST launch, and then take seven years. So that sounds like a 2025 launch at earliest. Which of course gives the gravy wave and X-ray folk time to re-group.

Oh.. and when I say “zeroed” that can still include $4-5M/yr of study money, as now. But thats just short change in NASA-land…

I got temporarily over-excited on page 61, as there is a “Decadal surveys missions” wedge, with 144M in FY2013. However … this means the Earth Sciences Decadal Survey … oh well.

Meanwhile, it seems NSF overall did quite well, but I have heard no news about how astro did inside this… any reader gossip ?

Finally, in case you hadn’t heard, the Spergel report recommends that the US spend $20M on Euclid….


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