Academia, bureaucracy, and the erosion of trust

January 24, 2007

My first job Monday morning was attending a meeting with University Administrators, reviewing the progress of the School of Physics in preparing its submission to the Research Assessment Exercise. As these things go it wasn’t too bad – everybody was positive, organised, not too petty – but this kind of work isn’t exactly what I dreamed I would be doing when I started my PhD two thousand years ago, rolling up my sleeves, ready to push back the Frontiers of Knowledge.

Young scientists love to whinge about the activity they call “admin” in a blurry kind of way, ignoring the crucial distinctions we senior academics make between management, politics, and true administration. Its hard not to think of that episode of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy – the one where the people of a dying planet plan to send three Arks out into space. The A-Ark has the creative types – leaders, poets, scientists, sportsman etc. The C-Ark has the workers – bricklayers, farmers, etc. The B-Ark carries all the middlemen, administrators, telephone sanitation engineers and so on. It turns out that Arks A and C were never launched and it was all a cunning ruse to get rid of the useless bits of society.

Academics are of course often naive – in understanding how much work running things actually takes, and in expecting money for nothing. But there are two real and serious problems : the erosion of trust, and frictional cost.

Aeons ago, academia was of little import and received little money. Now we get loads of public money. Quite right too; we educate half the population, discover cures for disease, travel to Jupiter, invent the web, and so on. We are a significant force in modern society. But you don’t get that kind of money without getting asked hard hard questions. And when you join the Firm you gotta toe the line, capisce ? Hands up all those astronomers who want complete academic freedom but no postdocs, no X-ray telescopes, and no conferences in Brazil. Pause. Thought so.

Asking hard questions is a good thing. But the growing tendency in public life is to want PROOF. Show us the papers, the citations, the gender statistics. Please establish a benchmark study and then maintain a basket of metrics. How can we pay overheads if you can’t prove what fraction of academic time goes on different categories of activity ? This course can’t be approved unless the Learning Objectives are in the correct format. Etc etc etc. Nobody knows when to stop and take a judgement call. The constant message is “we cannot trust you : we require proof”. Over time this inevitably erodes confidence and creativity, which is a bad thing for the Modern Economy.

As well as the psychological damage, the other danger is that the cost per unit achievement increases. Somebody has to work out how to channel money to the right bits of the machine, and we should be accountable. So inevitably administrators and managers poke and fiddle inside the machine. This adds internal friction. Without it, the machine could slither off in some random unwanted direction; but too much internal friction and we grind to a halt. So once again the problem is just knowing when to stop; each new bureaucratic demand is incrementally justified… Its one of those boiling the frog problems, folks.

The Principal of my University once asked me how one could improve staff morale. Simple, I said. Send an all-staff email saying “from now on, you no longer need to do X”. He asked me to instantiate X. I had several suggestions, but apparently they were all either politically unwise or not compliant with emerging legislation…

Big Brother, Princess Diana, Elvis, and the Dinosaurs

January 21, 2007

I have uncovered unsettling evidence that Jade Goody is in fact an MI5 agent, and that the whole Big Brother/racism/media circus thing is in fact a distraction, aimed at leading public attention away from the fact that a disgruntled GCHQ employee has leaked a secret Government Report that Princess Diana was in fact killed by Elvis Presley, because she knew too much about what really killed the dinosaurs. Elvis’ death in 1977 was faked so that he could go back into the army and travel undercover to decode alien signals from Arecibo

Naaah. Only kidding.

But on a more serious note, I just want to state my firm conviction that I am totally against err err the thing that all those people were talking about. But there are no easy solutions.

Somewhere in here I think there is some kind of completely tasteless astro-joke about Chandrasekhar, Oxbridge racism, collapsed objects, and British Imperial History, but I can’t quite crystallise it. A big no-prize for every entry submitted. Nuff Said.

Exploring the Cosmos Part I

January 20, 2007

I seem to have spent my life mapping the sky. Jemima Public might find this strange. As a scientist paid by her taxes, surely I should be doing something useful, like curing cancer or teaching her son how to integrate ? As a human being, surely there are more enjoyable or profound things – reading King Lear, or throwing darts at a picture of Donald Rumsfeld ? Even some of my professional colleagues are a bit snooty about it – sounds a bit of a dull slog, Lawrence … shouldn’t you get back to quasar variability studies ? Well, my colleagues, my fellow humans, I find that I must disagree.

Maps of the sky are of considerable cultural significance; they have been hugely productive scientifically; and they have been the engine of discovery, revealing an unknown universe step by step. Lets take each of these in turn, starting with the human impact of exploring the cosmos.

So.. the Cosmic Explorer boards his ship and sails forth into the dark unknown, observing, sketching, and writing as he goes, a modest supply of the King’s gold jingling in his pockets. He does this for the Advancement of Learning, but when he returns from the tropical glare to the grey skies of home, weary and bearded, the people want to hear his story. Draw us a map, they say, with the coastlines, cities and mountains you have found, that we may know the true extent and form of our world. Tell us of the other nations and peoples, how rich, how powerful they are, that we may know our place. Tell us of the wonders that you found – what strange beasts, what customs – that we may appreciate the true variety and beauty of the world.

Where do I live ?

Schoolboy answer : 33 Ironside Villas, Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland, UK, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Western Arm, Milky Way, Local Group, Virgo Supercluster, Universe..

Turn left just after Barnard’s star, you can’t miss it. Yes its silly and its whimsical; but it springs from a true need to know.

There is a long tradition of trying to produce a map of everything. This is now very hard in astronomy as the universe is soooo big. One needs to show a series of expanding views : the solar system, the solar neighbourhood of stars, the Milky Way, the Local Group, the Virgo Supercluster… There are some interesting web sites trying to do this. Probably the best is the Atlas of the Universe. This has lots of other good links. Another nice one is Tour the Universe, part of the online presence of the PBS Nova TV programme. There is a web version of the famous Powers of Ten There are also several downloadable programmes for roaming round the Universe on your PC – one from the Hayden Planetarium, a big open source project called Celestia, and a more home grown one just called Universe. One of the most interesting recent professional attempts to get the whole Universe across has been led by Gott and Juric who try to put everything on a single logarithmic strip.

One of my favourite pictures, shown here, is a whole sky map made in the infra-red by the 2MASS project. The Infrared sky by 2MASS. It is cleverly done to show both the Milky Way and the sea of other galaxies that it is lost within, colour coded by distance. Regular visible-wavelength light is extinguished by the obscuring muck in the interstellar medium, so that we can’t even see the centre of our own Galaxy. (Note : if another astronomer uses the word “extincted” I shall scream). In the infrared, you can see clean through, and we can finally see that yes, the Milky Way really is like two fried eggs back to back.

My own project, UKIDSS, is the successor to 2MASS – an infrared survey that doesn’t cover the whole sky but is much deeper. In fact The Ultra Deep Survey from UKIDSSone piece of it, the Ultra Deep Survey (UDS), led by my old chum Omar Almaini, is intended to build up over several years to map out a volume at redshift three that is big as the map of the local Universe that 2MASS has made. The UDS isn’t finished yet, but here is a picture showing the map so far – the faint red blob by the arrow is an object pinned down by Ross McLure, that he believes is a luminous “Lyman break” galaxy at redshift 6.

What is our place in things ?

We all know that Copernicus knocked us off our self-important pedestal. But the obsessive star mappers of the 18th and 19th centuries made an arguably bigger change : we live in a vast sea of stars at huge distances – we are insignificant. Temporarily we reverted to believing we were at the centre of a structured Universe, as star maps seemed to show that we live at the centre of a flattened swirling disc. But this was an illusion caused by the obscuring muck; now we know we live in an unfashionable suburb of the Milky Way. Next came two great twentieth century revolutions. The Milky Way is only one of many island universes; the Universe was again unimaginably vast and formless. For decades now we have been mapping the realm of the galaxies, but we have not uncovered another layer of structure – no Metagalaxy – the galaxies just go on and on and on and on. They are clumped and clustered, and measuring this clumpiness has filled many careers (including mine) as it is a diagnostic of rival cosmological theories … but no new landmass is emerging through the mist. We are just a dot within a dot within a dot.

However .. Slipher and Hubble and friends found all those galaxies rushing away from us. The Universe is expanding; running the movie backwards, the Universe had a beginning, in a violent explosion : what Hoyle scornfully termed the Big Bang. (Here is a free plug for Simon Singh’s book about the Big Bang.) This is philosophically unsettling, and Hoyle wriggled bravely, but every year the facts pile up. The Universe was different in the past and began 14 billion years ago. Much of our mapmaking now, like the UKIDSS-UDS, is aimed at mapping very very faint galaxies, to directly study the past, and we are struggling towards an understanding of the era of galaxy formation. But the philosophical discomfort remains. The Big Bang universe is one of the central features of our time.

What’s out there?

Astronomical surveys are not just about structure. They are about content. It is surveys that have gradually revealed the true variety of the cosmic bestiary. With the naked eye we see only stars and planets. Telescopic surveys revealed fuzzy patches that are either clouds of gas, or separate island universes. The patchiness in star counts revealed that the space between stars is not empty, but filled with smoke. But the real action started from the middle of the twentieth century, as technology allowed us to map the sky at different wavelengths. Radio surveys revealed the existence of pulsars, and radio galaxies squirting out jets millions of light years across. X-ray astronomy revealed collapsed objects – neutron stars and black holes – swallowing material from companion stars. Infra-red astronomy revealed new stars in the process of forming, and far-infrared astronomy showed us ultraluminous starburst galaxies. Not only did we find new objects that we didn’t know existed, but even new states of matter – relativistic plasma, degenerate matter, gas at ten million degrees between the galaxies.

Because of multi-wavelength surveys, twentieth century astronomy was a story of never ending surprises. But could it be that no windows remain to open .. Are there any surprises left ? Back soon ..


January 14, 2007

Next week is a really busy one for me, involving several things I aim to talk about on this blog : Big Sky Surveys, the Virtual Observatory, Academic Bureaucracy, and Astro-Politics. First I need to do the actual work… then I will try to get down some thoughts.

First, I need to finish the revised version of my paper describing the UKIRT Infrared Sky Survey (UKIDSS). Its been on astro-ph for ages but if I don’t submit the revised version soon to MNRAS it turns into a pumpkin and I have to re-submit. Second up is AstroGrid planning meetings. We are entering the final year of the AstroGrid project, before formally launching an actual operational Virtual Observatory service. Third thing is a series of planning meetings with Physics Colleagues and College Office planning our submission to the Research Assessment Exercise. This is such a pain in the butt, but now that the Government are talking about changing it, we are all whingeing. Fourth thing is preparing for a meeting of the Astronet project in Poitiers, aimed at making a “strategic plan for European astronomy”. Wow. As usual with Euro-stuff, it could easily be either crucial or vacuous bilge. Will be letting you know …

By the way, if you google Astronet you get some astrology stuff for women. Gaaggghhh.

Meanwhile my teenage daughter is off to Space Camp in Houston, and is chatting up astronauts as I write. Apparently she might even meet legendary flight controller Gene Krantz. Wow.

Still haven’t seen Comet McNaught … but I note there is a post on Universe Today saying that you can see it in broad daylight if you use a nearby building as a coronagraph …

Quasar Type shows his ignorance of the Solar System

January 12, 2007

In my recent post on the Pluto vote, I referred to the “Pluto-Kuiper Express” mission. More than one person has pointed out to me that thei mission was cancelled. However it was replaced by the rather similar New Horizons Mission, and this was in fact the link I gave in the post. The latest news is that the Jupiter encounter is underway.

Re Pluto etc, I see that Mike Brown gave a talk at the ongoing AAS meeting about the properties of the new Pluto-like objects that led to Pluto’s demise. This is described in a news item on Cosmic Log . Its good to see that (a) Mike Brown is getting some credit and (b) some actual science is going on, as well as label-debates.

Pluto : My part in its downfall

January 10, 2007

OK. I confess. It was me. I killed Pluto. Well, it was me and about four hundred other random astronomers at the IAU General Assembly. As we sat there in the Grand Conference Hall, and slowly raised our pale yellow voting cards, Pluto’s fate was sealed.

I was reminded of that summer afternoon in Prague when I saw a recent news item about “plutoed” being the word of the year according to the American Dialect Society. Apparently to be pluto’ed means to be demoted in stature or value. The Pluto episode taught me two lessons; the first was about science and human culture; the second was about democracy.

But first, lets get one thing straight. Is Pluto’s change of status of scientific importance ? Nope. When Pluto stopped being a planet, did it fly out of its orbit ? Did its material composition suddenly change ? Did the known facts about the solar system alter ? Did theorists have to throw their pet models out the window ? Should we stop Pluto Express and bring it back ? Lift-off to PlutoNo, no, no, no and no. I find myself remembering the gag about how you tell the difference between a physicist and an astronomer. You show them both a scatterplot of random points. The physicist draws a curve through the points and claims that her model fits the data. The astronomer draws two vertical lines and labels the diagram Class I, Class II, Class III. (Where did I hear this joke ?)

Most of the two thousand astronomers at the meeting were not solar system types. Through the fortnight we were getting fed up with all this pointless stuff about Pluto, and worried that we would be looking foolish in the eyes of the world, debating how many angels fit on the head of a pin. By the time of the assembly on the last day, there were only 4-500 of us left, but again nearly all these were not planetary astronomers. Basically we looked at the resolutions and said right, does one of these look vaguely reasonable ? Yup, that one, ok right. Yes we agree. Next ? Can we do something serious now ?

Then something strange, magical, and twenty first century happened. The hall had wireless and many of us were on our laptops web browsing, checking email, etc as per normal. Within one minute of the vote, I heard somebody say “wow ! the news is on the BBC web site already !” To my left, Francoise Genova confirmed that the news had hit France too. I left the hall and spotted several colleagues on their mobiles to journalists. I got the subway back to my hotel, turned on the TV, and there was the story on CNN, complete with a grainy video of people voting with their yellow cards, that someone had taken inside the Hall on their mobile phone. A day later I was back in Edinburgh and my secretary was asking what Pluto had done to me and my daughter was frosting me for doing something so horrible.

I gradually realised this wasn’t just a big jokey thing. People actually cared. Furthermore, by and large the stories were fairly accurate. People were interested in the science – discovering lots of objects past Neptune, what this meant for the history of the solar system – but really it was a cultural thing. The planets are in movies, novels, school posters, TV quizzes, people’s dreams. Too often we take a patronising attitude to communicating science ; we know what is important, and try to explain it patiently to hoi polloi because it is good for them. But we are not priests holding sacred truth; we are technical experts. What matters and what does not is decided by human culture, owned by us all. Pluto belongs to the people.

Which brings me to Lesson B. The fateful vote on the last day was not the first Pluto vote. Some days earlier, a motion proposed by the Executive had been roundly rejected, partly because it was a daft idea, opening the floodgates to thousands of planets, and partly because it was felt to be foisted upon us by the Executive without adequate discussion. On the final day, Michael Rowan-Robinson, currently president of the RAS, made a beautiful speech. It had been necessary, he explained, to give the Executive a bloody nose; but now that open discussion had been had, and a reasonable proposition placed before us, the wise course of action was to close the issue. And so we did.

In the modern West, we are used to the idea that “democracy” means only picking a representative. The government makes all the decisions. At its root in fifth century Athens, it meant debate and decision by the Assembly of all citizens. (Not slaves of course…) Mostly, this ain’t workable. But every so often – the velvet revolution, the Pluto vote – the idea of mass democracy re-emerges. This is confusing for scientists. Truth cannot be decided by voting (whatever Paul Feyerabend says), but it cannot be decided by authority either. What is the right social organisation for science ?

Leaving the Planet versus Finding More

January 5, 2007

Here in Scotland time vanishes for more or less two weeks over Christmas, Hogmanay, and Hangover. I’ve done very little for a while – eating, playing with the kids, reading, watching TV, plus a bit of thinking about quasars, and a bit of experimenting in Blog Land. I got round to registering with Bloglines – it is very good – so I have been keeping up with the astro-news. Bad Astronomy and the Universe Today are good; but I also discovered that my old school chum Paul Sutherland runs a site called Skymania News; and there is a nice space politics site.

Two pieces of news caught my attention – the launch of the planet finder mission Corot, and the decision of the UK government to invest after all in manned spaceflight. They both seem very positive, but I found myself feeling nervous. The danger is that as more money is spent on space exploration, then “space science” is seen as being quite well catered for thank you, and pure astrophysics gets squeezed. This is not an idle worry. During the Thatcher Years, astronomy funding stayed flat in cash terms and so fell by half in real terms over two decades. The Labour government, since 1997, has steadily increased science funding and continues to do so, but with a clear practical agenda; astronomy has struggled to stay flat in real terms, and is falling behind other sciences.

Corot stands out as being cheap by space standards, and being the first space mission specifically aimed to shoot at the exo-planet target – this science has mostly been done from the ground with small telescopes, and in the future will be done by hugely expensive space missions like Darwin/TPF or whatever its called these days. “Astrobiology” in the loose sense is getting trendier by the day. An argument can be made that stars are understood, that cosmology has reached an impasse, that quasars are just too hard to understand, that star formation can’t be solved; so finding and studying planets is the most important frontier.

Finding exo-planets has an obvious popular appeal – like most of astronomy – but its pretty pure science. No patents or mining rights or social engineering here. Exploring planets in our own solar system has always been a little more two edged. Part of the agenda is purely scientific – but partly it has always been about the spirit of adventure, international competition, or Keynesian pyramid building, funneling money to the kind of industry we want to see encouraged. These are all <em good things</em> but science they aint. For many years, astronomers have argued that unmanned exploration is the best and cheapest way to do the science, and that manned exploration is purely about the adventure/competition/pyramids. The UK government obviously thought manned exploration was a pointless expensive dick waving exercise. (If you are going to waste money on your pride, much better to do it on submarine missiles). So what changed ?

Well of course, partly this is a response to the NASA agenda, and the push to get back to the moon. But locally, just for once, the good old Royal Astronomical Society may have had some influence. If you check out the RAS news item on this issue, you will be reminded that the RAS commissioned a review, led by Ken Pounds and Frank Close, who recommended that the UK government change its policy and spend money on manned space exploration. They had three key scientific aims in mind :

  1. establishing an astronomical observatory on the moon
  2. getting moon rock cores 100m deep to study the history of the solar system
  3. drilling below the permafrost on Mars, looking for life

These are very exciting but expensive. The UK would only play a small part. Pounds and Close suggest the UK would need to spend of the order £150M/yr for 25 years to participate, and – here is the rub – that this should be on top of the existing science budget rather than being found within it.

Time to start watching the pea under the cups ..