The good ship stiffsea

April 25, 2007

Tuesday night I consumed some more of your tax pounds, nibbling canapes on a boat on the Thames, laughing politely at the Minister’s jokes, and networking like crazy. Yes folks it was the grand launch party of Britain’s newest Research Council, STFC. “Ess Tee wot ?” I hear you say… Thats the Science and Technologies Facilities Council, formed by a grand merger of PPARC and CCLRC. Amongst other things, henceforward this is the feeding trough at which UK astronomers and particle physicists will need to hustle, and as such I feel obliged to point out that they are splendid chaps every man jack of them. (Actually, for the ex-PPARC folk at least this is true … they are certainly more fun to drink to beer with than parti.. no hang on I’ll stop there.)

Wal Sargent apparently once said that the one guaranteed thing about UK astronomy is that once every few years the Government digs it up to have a look at the roots and see if its still healthy.

I was one of the youngest people there. This doesn’t happen often these days. I scanned the room for bloggers of course but the only one I could see was Paul Sutherland from Skymania News. (Paul – got there first !)

For some months the usual joke has been that STFC stands for Swindon Town Football Club, but by last night that had worn off a bit, except that somehow when Science Minister Malcolm Wicks said it, it was still very funny. The man is just an excellent orator. One thing for sure. Nobody knows how to say STFC. Consensus amongst my apparatchik chums is that Stiffsea will do.

If you go to the shiny new STFC web site, the launch party isn’t even a news item. But there is an item labelled “UK comment on discovery of first habitable Earth-like planet“. Thats a bit sad – me me me I was at that party too ! Actually, over at Astronomy Blog, Stuart explains that you may want to take this discovery with a wee grain of salt.

Last snippet. The party finished at 9pm and I went to a Westminster pub with David Saxon, Paul Sutherland, Jim Hough, and Ian Robson. We were supping our pints when suddenly there was this repeated clanging. It was the division bell calling soused MPs into vote .. coo. I didn’t know they really did that.

Anyhoo. The good ship stiffsea is launched. Good luck to all who sail in her.

Guest blogging, insulting engineers, and insulting particle physicists

April 21, 2007

Yesterday I had the honour of providing a guest post on the popular //engtech site, which I have had on my own feedlist for a while. The guest post has a link to my own site. This has made my page views zoom up temporarily, even more than when I got a nice link from the Astronomy Blog. Even better – gasp – this afternoon the guest post is on the WordPress “top posts of the day list”. Crikey. This could turn me into a stats junkie.

//engtech is a pretty geeky site of course, so I wrote something about the differences between scientists and engineers. Its called “How I learned to shoot the engineers and ship the product”. Basically it was meant to be funny, and I thought was equally rude to both tribes. Hopefully most of //engtech’s readers agree, but I had some rather prickly comments indicating that some read it as “arrogant scientist mocking dumb engineers”. Oh dear. One does have to watch one’s tongue out here in cyberspace. I also had someone complaining that using the words “shoot” and “engineer” so soon after Virginia Tech was tasteless. Again, err, sorry .. I think ?

Talking about being rude to other tribes, Simon White has a nice paper up on astro-ph just now, all about how particle physicists are a malign influence on the health of astronomy, pushing us to expend all our resource on a handful of “fundamental” issues like dark energy, rather than explaining the wondrous diversity of phenomena in the Universe. I won’t go further into this, as Sean at Cosmic Variance has already written a post all about it. But I would just note that if this had been written by some dumb observer like me, you would see it as sour grapes. But coming from a mega-brain like Simon, you gotta take it seriously.

Black Hole Eclipse and the non-existent donut

April 14, 2007

My old chums Guido Risaliti and Martin Elvis have been in the astro-news this week, with a Chandra press release about the disappearing X-ray emission from NGC 1365. They measured it every two days for a fortnight and in just one measurement it wuzzn’t there – eclipsed by an intervening cloud they reckon. This was touted as “measuring the size of the accretion disc” but I know that Martin and Guido have written papers before claiming that rapid variability of absorption shows that the popular obscuring torus or “donut” model for active galaxies must be wrong. I like this because I too am a donut-sceptic, as set out in this recent conference paper.

So I emailed Martin and asked which it was – donut-destruction or disk-size. The answer seems to both, Martin says there is more cool stuff coming. But how can I tell ? Martin ! Write the damn paper !

The man who measured the size of the Universe

April 14, 2007

Last night I was faced with a mixture of achievement and failure, wonder and decay, drinking tea in the room where Thomas Henderson calculated the distance to the stars.

I was giving a talk to the Astronomical Society of Edinburgh, a long established amateur society. My talk was about mapping the Universe, first stepping through the history, and ending up with modern results from SDSS, 2dFGRS, and UKIDSS. I mentioned Thomas Henderson, my predecessor as Regius Professor; a great hero, as in 1833 he was the first man to measure parallax and so determine the distance to a star (Alpha Centauri). He made the measurements in South Africa and finished the calculations in Edinburgh. Alpha Centauri is the very nearest star system; but it is almost seven thousand times further away than Pluto… The universe of stars is unimaginably vast.

I showed a picture of a memorial to Henderson Thomas Henderson Memorial on Calton Hill Edinburghwhich I had found on the web, and mentioned that I wasn’t sure where it was – maybe in the same cemetery as David Hume ? Oh no, they piped up – its on the side of this building ! (And the image came from their website… oops.) The ASE are lucky enough to use as their HQ the old City Observatory on Calton Hill, where the Astronomers Royal worked until 1894 when the new Royal Observatory was built on Blackford Hill on the outskirts of Edinburgh. (This is where I work now of course..). Well…I say lucky, but the state of the buildings is a scandal. They are owned by the City, but gradually decaying. The toilets don’t work, and the ASE guys warned me to go before I turned up.

After the talk they fed me tea and biscuits in a room where they reckon Henderson did his calculations after returning from the Cape. But its also where he lost his nerve. In the 1830s measuring parallax was the big prize, and some people had had egg on their faces -Henderson was nervous about whether he had got it right, and didn’t publish. Finally in 1838 Friedrich Bessel beat him to it and published the parallax of 61 Cygni. Henderson finally published the next year. His distance was right within about 30%.

So on the way out I walked around the side of the beautiful Playfair building. Fog was swirling around the walls (no observing last night !). ASE scretary Graham Rule shone his torch for me, and there it was – a modest monument to the man who showed just how big the Universe really is.

The Internet and the Persian Wars

April 7, 2007

Information is power they say. I have just been watching the return of the British sailors from Iran on TV, and their stories of blindfolding and isolation. Iran of course denies all this. How does someone in Palestine know who is telling the truth ? It seems scary that the West and Iran are inching towards a crisis just as “300” is hitting our cinema screens … a garish cartoon version of the founding myth of Western Civilisation – the defeat of Persia. But we are the masters of the world .. are we not ?

So here we are at the peak of Western Power. What is our secret ? Capitalism ? Energy ? Technology ? Or Information – knowledge, infrastructure, organisation ? All these things are connected, but you could argue that information is the key. A surplus of energy allows you to organise life – to build roads and hospitals, and to pay people to do things other than fight and farm – e.g. to play with technology, design systems of law, set exams, and so on. Free market Capitalism is just a form of organisation, as is the ideal Socialist State. In one method, a highly structured system is designed and implemented top down; in the other, a network of interacting agents is left to organically evolve under a simple set of rules. In both cases a highly non-random information-rich structure appears.

The easier it is for information to flow, the more quickly a system can restructure. Hence libraries, education, and TV have also been crucial to the dominance of Western societies. Through most of history, the ruling classes have had more access to, and more control of, information than the majority of the population. During the nineteenth century, the mass production of cheap books was starting to change this, and information became very diffuse and democratic – every shopkeeper could read Dickens. The arrival of cinema, radio and TV stopped all this, along with national newspapers. Information flowed outwards from a few central points. It is probably not a coincidence that the golden age of popular revolt was from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, whereas the rest of the twentieth century was characterised by happy but docile populations. (Lets count the second world war as a horrific gap between these eras ..)

The Internet is all about information transparency. Basic protocols (TCP/IP) allow messages to pass between computers; FTP allows whole files to flow from place to place; the Web (HTML, HTTP) makes documents visible transparently from any location. Web services and associated standards like XML, SOAP and REST are about achieving transparency for data (as opposed to human readable documents). Grid middleware (Condor, GLOBUS, WSRF) is about making processing power transparent, so programmes can run anywhere.

For most people the World Wide Web is the visible surface of the new infrastructure. Sitting here on the sofa, surfing the Web, it feels like all the documents in the world are right here inside my computer. Fifteen years ago this was for a handful of geeks. Now every day my kids show me stuff I didn’t know and my sister shops on the web. The world is transparent and information is flooding to and fro at a fantastic rate. The effects are very hard to predict. Of course .. the thing about the Web is that (a) there is just too much stuff, and (b) nearly all of it is dross. How does that vast turbulence settle into an organised structure ? Web-1 answers : bookmarks; search engines; portals … mostly deliverer centred, like TV. Web-2 answers are famously more diffuse, democratic, and user centred – social networking; tags and social bookmarking; self publication; popular voting (Digg etc). These things produce accelerated spontaneous structuring at the same time as producing more and more utter drivel. Its excitingly powerful and unstable. Who knows where we are going ?

The Internet is a symbol of Western success. The Chinese are frightened of it. If war is coming, we will win for sure, won’t we ? Information is power. So was this true in the ancient Persian wars ?

My Christmas reading left me confused. I got a wonderful book called “Persian Fire” by Tom Holland. Its a popular history, the story of the war between Persia and Greece in the fifth century B.C.E. – Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis, and all that. Its is a riveting read. Tom Holland is a magician. When most people try to write popular history with a narrative flow, it comes out as patronising and sub-novelistic. Holland does it and its grown-up and gripping. If I can figure out the trick I will bottle and sell it.

One thing that took me by surprise was how bureaucratic the Persian Empire was. Everything was recorded. The Imperial staff knew the whereabouts of every chicken in the empire. This was not the sign of a decadent society past its best; rather, it was precisely the secret of an unstoppable war machine. Cyrus, Darius, and then Xerxes, all knew that information was power. When that vast army set off, they knew who would feed it where and when. They knew the size and strength of every city on the way, the factions it contained, and who to pay off. They captured spies and sent them back with carefully planted disinformation. They knew what was going on and the other guys didn’t.. So there we go .. information produces organisation produces power.

And yet … the Greeks won. They won against much bigger numbers and against a much better machine. So maybe it was the superior moral strength of democracy versus despotism ? Err .. don’t think so. The Athenians were in the middle of their democratic experiment, but none of the other city states were, and the Spartans were completely bizarre weirdos. Greek cunning ? Well, partly. Salamis was the real victory, a beautifully planned strategy. Technology ? Certainly important. The Hoplite Phalanx was the secret weapon – a wall of metal bristling with spears.

Or maybe there is no systemic answer. Everything cracks in the end. There are fault lines in History. As Bush lines up the battle ships in the Gulf, take nothing for granted.