Concrete Science Epiphanies

April 9, 2014

The title is a kinda cultural reference to Musique Concrete, don’t you know. Maybe should be read in French.  Sea-onss kon-krett. Pretentious, Moi?

Anyhoo. I have always loved that moment when Jane Public looks through a real telescope and sees the rings of Saturn. Suddenly its real. Not on TV. Seen with her own eyes. There is a physical context. She had to walk up some stairs to the roof, queue up, bend at an awkward angle, and squint. Mental processing is good, but physicality is also good. It helps the scientific understanding, and it has a separate cultural impact which has its own importance. Its a kind of epiphany, an awakening.

I encountered two more such epiphanies yesterday. Here in Edinbrr its Science Festival time. (In Edinburgh, if you miss a Festival, don’t worry. There will be another one along in a minute.)  During the day I donned my STFC tee-shirt and helped out at the STFC roadshow, Seeing The Universe In All Its Light. This has all sorts of groovy things, but the bit I loved best is dead simple. We had a bunch of TV remote controls and pointed them at people’s camera phones. You can see the IR beam, which you can’t see with your naked eye. People almost gasp. There are invisible things in the Universe, but they are really there. You don’t need a million pound device. I can see it with with my own phone.

Wind forward to the evening, where I was part of the SCART Connection, a strange event that presented the results of pairing up scientists from the School of Physics and Astronomy with artists from the Edinburgh College of Art to see what they would come up with. This involved microscopic pictures of sludge crystals, sculptures of Ice-2,  Fibonacci spirals, a social soundscape project, and yours truly pontificating about cosmic violence to the accompaniment of electronic music by a local composer.  All very weird and wonderful. One thing that struck me was people’s reactions to a movie of those tiny sludge crystals. You could see them jiggling – Brownian motion in action. When told that this was caused by buffeting by atoms, their eyes bulged. Atoms? I can see them in a movie made by a guy from the Art College? Wooaahh.


Restart Miscellany

March 26, 2014

Some chums complained I have written no blog posts for about eight million years. I blame teaching. Anyway. Lets see. How do you do this thing? Scrapes off rust. Here are a few bits.

(1) At last the STFC Programmatic Review emerges!!! Get it here. I have tried to wade through it, but it looks like all the interesting bits are [redacted]. I encountered one or two cynics who claimed most of it was about the process rather than the results. Unfair. I would say its no more than 40%. About another 40% is generic RCUK Boilerplate.

(2) Research Fish. Don’t even start me.

(3) George Fraser died. This was a real shock and a terrible loss to X-ray astronomy. But he has the most astonishing swan song. Here is his incredibly careful and potentially crucial paper which claims a detection of the signal of solar axions interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

(4) The other reason I have been a tad busy is that I have been writing and filming a MOOC with me old mate Catherine H. It’s almost ready for show time : April 28th. You can tell your Auntie to sign up here.

(5) Seeing yourself on film, especially as the free bus pass approaches, is a tad disconcerting. I seem to be perfecting the scrawny old lizard look, whereas I am expecting myself to look vaguely like Charles Manson.  Sorry, off on a 1970s nostalgia kick, as a result of watching this documentary about Mike Oldfield and the making of Tubular Bells. This made it pretty clear (if it wasn’t already) that he was inspired by Terry Riley. Rainbow in Curved Air still amazes me. Here is a yewtoob version with groovy astropix. I think the gaudy artist’s quasar at 5mins in is from an ESO press release I was involved in. Enjoy.


Deadlines. We love ‘em

January 5, 2014

Happy New Year all. Virtual Handshake.

Just discovered a groovy new web comic called Toothpaste for Dinner thanks to Tweeter @Mariancall via @CatherineQ . Well, its new to me anyway. This one is The Creative Process and will cause both giggles and nods from anybody who does anything creative which involves a deadline. This includes writing a paper or submitting a proposal…

We all love deadlines. The usual joke is “I love the whooshing noise as they go past me” which is tres amusant, but the real problem is that we tend to meet them by the skin of our teeth and let them destroy our sanity. As in aforelinked cartoon. (NB WordPress confirms my creativity. In the edit box every neologism is underlined in red. Bizarrely, this is true of “WordPress”. Anyway. Yes. Where was I?)

I have noticed a consistent pattern, especially coming up to observing runs.

  1. Start work nice and early, in a relaxed manner.
  2. Two weeks somehow drifts by.
  3. Make a plan, organise work into sections.
  4. This isn’t really working and time is passing. Getting somewhat nervous. Realise what you need is a priority list of tasks. Start working down from the top in a firm manner.
  5. The first task is half done and there is a few days to go. Getting distinctly twitchy. Miss coffee break and grab sandwich lunch but still hard to concentrate.
  6. Your flight is day after tomorrow. Feeling of desperation building. Suddenly realise got this list thing wrong. Start working up from the bottom crossing off things that aren’t essential.
  7. Flight is tomorrow. Half list crossed off from bottom. Panic starting. Go back to top and fiercely ask of each item – right, will it be a disaster if I don’t do this?
  8. Six pm in your office. Standing in middle of room unable to move because pulled in multiple directions, and muttering “not physically possible … not physically possible..”
  9. Midnight. Suddenly think “screw it, thats good enough”. Immense feeling of relief washes over you and you to go to bed.
  10. Catch flight, have perfectly good observing run etc. Possibly a few things have to be improvised.

Of course, that last minute improvising thing is a bit tricky when making ESO style Observing Blocks. For the benefit of any ESO staff that may be reading this blog I should of course clarify that I always make OBs in a calm, efficient and timely manner, with no errors. Hem.


Book fever

December 13, 2013

I am terribly excited because my book just came out. Three years in gestation, but finally got there. Its called “Astronomical Measurement – a Concise Guide”, its published by Springer, and it even has a Kindle version. I am not expecting you all to rush out and buy it, because like most textbooks it is horribly expensive – 26p a page as Mike Watson pointed out. You will appreciate that the price was not chosen by me…

Career-wise, I think maybe finishing a book ranks third after finishing a thesis (btw, well done Jack!) and seeing my first research paper come out, but pretty groovy nonetheless. I was expecting a warm glow for a day or two. But what took me pleasantly by surprise was the very positive reactions from many friends, colleagues, and distant rellies. I guess I was expecting that most people would just think “err yeah ok, thats what academics do isn’t it, write textbooks? I expect you give some lectures too.” Or perhaps the younger ones would be thinking “oh, a book, how quaint, do people still do those?”.

Through most of my life books were very important to people. Its not just the stories. Its the physical presence. A book-lined room was what we dreamed of. The smell of a new book is wonderful. I love picking up an old book in a dusty second hand bookshop and finding it signed “To Eric, Christmas 1938″. A new friend walks into your room and goes straight to your shelves to see what kind of person you are, and a conversation starts.

Well now of course the future of the physical book is unclear, along with the physical music album and perhaps the physical lecture course. (I am halfway through filming a MOOC …) But its not even clear that eBooks will survive. What I mean is, when all the material you need is dispersed through many web pages, all indexable and searchable, why do you need to package material into 300 page chunks? Shouldn’t content diffuse and spread and mingle? Part of the appeal of a book has always been the heft. Never mind the quality, feel the width. But once that is gone, why do you need so many dumb consecutive words, as opposed to a complex hyperlinked reality?


Specially for Tim

October 9, 2013

I have been putting on the nosebag tonight. The ESO Committee of Council is here in Edinburgh; the first time we have hosted it for ten years I believe. Anyhoo, I am not on said august body, but as a local astro-big-wig was invited to the nosh. All the chat was about ELT and Brazil of course. Much optimism. Honest. Also a bit of Higgsteria spin-off with Wommers and Jim The Dunlop later in the pub. (The Bow Bar. Some of my readers will know it well.)

Anyhoo, found myself chatting to the Danish rep on the government side. Very cogent woman called Cecilie Tonroe. I think. I was probing her about Danish astronony when Tim De Zeeuw leaned over and said “careful what you say to this man, Cecilie, he has a blog and anything interesting will appear there”.

Anyway. The entire point of this post is to prove Tim right.

Except of course you don’t know what I am not telling you.


Women and Strange Powers in Wallachia

September 27, 2013

If you are a British or American astronomer, you have done this many times. You are at a meeting and wander over to a table full of Italians. Or Germans. Or Brazilians, or whatever. They are happily chatting away, but as you sit down they switch seamlessly into English. We Brits radiate a strange field that induces a language phase transition as we approach. Germans do not have this power. Sometimes I am tempted to lean in and out and cause an oscillation. Anyway, we are privileged and rather lucky.

I am currently lecturing at the Opticon Awareness Conference in Bucharest, a kind of Euro-astro-summer-school. This year it is  specifically for students from South-Eastern Europe – Romania, Albania, Greece, Serbia, etc. Very fascinating. Anyway I spent my lunch preventing some Bulgarians and Macedonians speaking their own undoubtedly fine languages. As I walked back I caught up with fellow lecturers Francois Hammer and Alain Le Cavelier, and stopped them speaking French.

Although I have mentioned three male lecturers so far, there is actually a fair sprinkling of female lecturers at this summer school. Maybe not enough, but some. This contrasts rather starkly with the recent STFC summer school, where 0/18 lecturers were female. Well, Peter C already blogged that one. Anyway. I suppose its Rumania One UK Nil.

The female:male ratio varies widely from country to country. UK is better than it was but not so good. Germany is poor. France and Italy have lots of women astronomers. Some of this seems to have been due to strong role models over my lifetime – Suzy Collin, Jacqueline Bergeron, Laura Maraschi, etc. China has lots of female astronomers; Japan extremely few. Is there a pattern here? Whats going on?

There is  also large variation across sub-disciplines in astronomy, which I see in personal experience. When I go to cosmology conferences, women are pretty thin on the ground. When I go to AGN conferences, it’s almost 50:50. Whats that all about? Is it a historical accident? Or something about the way those questions are researched? Herd fashion for aggressive males? Got to be a clue. Some women I know do have a foot in both those camps, so if they happen to be reading, do feel free to comment.


UKIRT extension

July 29, 2013

UKIRT fans will be pleased to see the announcement here

As UK astronomers will know, UKIRT was slated for closure in September this year, but STFC invited proposals for new operators. The good news is that they have two serious bidders. The bad news is they won’t complete negotiations by September. The good news is that STFC has taken the sane decision to extend UKIRT operation through to December while this process continues. The even better news is that University of Hawaii has swallowed the legal responsibility. (For a suitable one off capital transfer methinks…)

UH also swallow responsibility for JCMT. But that has another year to work things out…

Anyhoo. Tally Ho :)


Update : it seems the news is even better than we thought !

ukirt-2103


Update next morning : damn. STFC got tough againukirt-not-2103


Raindrops, stars and photons

July 29, 2013

Here is another one of those occasional posts with mazin facks bout stronomy. (See also Almost Nothing and A Dim Glimmer).

Today’s rambling is inspired by some fascinating tweets emitted by darkskyman aka Steve Owens of Dark Sky Diary fame. First I will give you the gist of Steve’s ‘believe it or not’ sequence. From the average rainfall in the UK last year (1.33m), the area of the UK (2.426×10^11 m^2), and the average volume of a raindrop (10^-9 m^3) he calculated that the total number of raindrops that fell on the UK was 10^20. That is a big big number. However, continues Steve, the number of stars in the Universe is approximately 10^23.

So as Steve told us ‘for every raindrop that hit the UK last year there are 1000 stars in the Universe’.

Very nice, but I found myself thinking – how does the rate of raindrops compare to the rate of photons? The average raindrop flux is 13 raindrops/m^2/s. Lets compare to the Sun. The solar constant is 1360 W/m^2. If we take the typical photon as being at about 500nm with energy hc/lamda = 4×10^-19J, we get roughly 3×10^21 photons/m^2/s.

So we get much much much more sunlight than rain! Woohee!

What about starlight? Well, as Mr Olbers pointed out, a Universe full of stars would make a sky as bright as the Sun in every direction. However, the Milky Way fades out, and the universe runs out too, in time and therefore space. So lets just get empirical. Cosmology types will often plot the ‘cosmic optical background’ at a level of about 10^-8 W/m^2/sr, about a factor of a thousand less than the CMB. However, that is the extragalactic background light;  the summed emission from nearby stars is in fact much more. According to my Trusty Allen, star light from the whole sky is equivalent to 460 V=0 stars, or one star of V=-6.7. The  apparent mag of the Sun is V=-26.7. So the scattered starlight is 20 magnitudes fainter or a factor of 10^8.

So in super-crude terms, starlight is giving us something like 3×10^13 photons/m^2/s. Still lots more than the 13 raindrops/m^2/s.

But what energy? Scaling down from the solar constant, starlight is giving us an energy flux of about 1.4×10^-5 W/m^2. What about raindrops? Each of those raindrops has mass 10^-6 kg. The terminal velocity of a raindrop depends on size, but at 1mm its about 4 m/s. So the KE per raindrop is about 8×10^-6 J and the energy flux is therefore 10^-5 W/m^2, about 6 times as much as starlight.

So… in particle count terms, the Sun wins hands down; starlight is down a factor of hundred million but still huge; and the raindrop count is pitiful, another factor of a trillion down.

In energy terms, the Sun still wins easily, with starlight a hundred millions times down; but the rain carries more energy than the starlight – just.

Please do check the maths… Anyhoo. Better do some real work today.


NAM and the Knife Edge

July 5, 2013

pointer NAMcupwin Had a jolly few days at NAM2013, the annual UK astronomy jamboree. I gave two talks, a contributed talk and a plenary. This was hard work. Stress City. But I got through it and even enjoyed myself with a giant broom-pointer gag. Later the same day, the Edinburgh team won the NAM footie, beating St Andrews 6-1 in the final, so smiles all round this side of the Firth of Forth. Thanks to Duncan Forgan for the piccie.

Wednesday afternoon was the STFC community session. John Womersley gave an upbeat talks on the state of STFC but the community was left rather nervous. Here are a few key points :

  • Because of the upcoming election, the spending review is for 2015-16 only. The long term funding is all still to play for.
  • The science budget has its allocation (flat cash plus a teensy bit of extra capital) but the Research Council carve-up is still to come. My giant mop may be needed to clean up the blood.
  • The STFC budget result will come in September, same time as the STFC programmatic review outcome is announced. I guess this means that we still won’t know whats in and whats out…
  • Three years ago flat cash seemed like a victory. This time it could look more like disaster. The longer it continues, the more inflation erodes. As erosion continues, at first you just lose some soil – but there comes a day when the cliff collapses. Womersley uses a different metaphor. He said he is telling government that we are on a knife edge. There are rumours that ISIS may have to be mothballed. Wouldn’t make my high-pressure chums very happy…
  • JCMT is now up for sale. (See also SEN article). Meanwhile STFC are negotiating with two serious potential new owners for UKIRT. It seems unlikely this will conclude before the axe is due to fall in September, so there may be a temporary stay of execution.
  • We need to make the case to Government for our economic relevance. Well ok, we have all heard this again and again, but Wommers had a potentially important new idea. We need quantifiable metrics – somewhat along the lines that a road building project might use, quoting the number of commuter-hours saved and attaching a pound-note figure. This won’t be easy, but it really is necessary. You see, I think most politicians are already convinced that science is important, but this warm feeling doesn’t tell them whether they need to spend N pounds or 2N pounds or 0.5N pounds.

Well that will do. For those with a Research Fortnight subscription, there is an excellent article just out by James Wilsdon from Sussex with some interesting insight.

Meanwhile, just to show that it is technically possible to balance permanently on a knife edge, here is Emerson Lake and Palmer forty years on. A treat for prog rock fans. Janacek fans still divided.


Science in spending review : story so far

June 26, 2013

Quick off the mark Beeb summary here. The real McCoy here, for patient readers. (In standard government fashion, much blether and very repetitive…)

Headline (1) Science budget flat cash.  Could have been worse but not exactly good.

Headline (2) Capital budget increased – extra 500M 2015-16.

Detail (1) Increased capital budget is

…enabling significant investment in projects including autonomous robotics, Big Data, and major upgrades and new facilities at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus

Hmm.

Detail (2) : MRC budget apparently not moved to Department of Health.

Most important point… just the beginning boys and girls. Research Council carve-up not yet announced, and maybe not even fixed. Fate of QR (see Peter’s blog post from yesterday) and student finance etc still unknown. Gird your loins and buckle up your breastplate.


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