Yes we have no onions

November 27, 2007

Earlier today I donned the white bow tie and funny gown to do my bit at a University Graduation Ceremony. I rather like doing this. Its a grand piece of physical theatre. Hundreds of people clapping once every seven seconds for an hour, standing in a vast Victorian Hall with rays of light piercing the gloom. Every student getting tapped gently on the head with a bunnet made of John Knox’s breeches. The Principal making the same jokes twice a day for a week, and pretty much the same jokes as last year. The thirty second formal meeting of Senate just before we process in. Honestly, its like a cheery amalgam of Lindsay Anderson and Jerzy Grotowski.

Today we gave an Honorary Degree to Sir Keith O’Nions, Director General of the Research Councils. We were very good children. Nobody, absolutely nobody, called him Sir Keef Unyuns (its pronounced Oh-nigh-ons) , and nobody gave him a hard time for not giving STFC enough money. Well, not while I was there.

I am failing in my brown-nosing duties. Last night I had dinner at the Principal’s house with Lord Sainsbury (ex Science Minister) and other Heads of School. I only managed to say about eight words total to Sainsbury+O’Nions. I just couldn’t think of anything sensible to say about Knowledge Transfer, which is what you have to do these days …

If you check out this web page and read carefully you will see that Sir Keef apparently worked at the MOD for one thousand six hundred and four years. Wow.


November 25, 2007

After all that grim stuff about the STFC, Casey Kazan has cheered up my evening. The Daily Planet has a posting with a quote from Kurt Vonnegut which I now shamelessly reproduce :

Every passing hour brings the Solar System forty-three thousand miles closer to Globular Cluster M13 in Hercules, and still there are some misfits who insist that there is no such thing as progress

The Daily Planet post has a nice picture too, so check it out, and Digg it if you are young and trendy enough to be bothered. The quote is from Sirens of Titan, as I discovered when I also found it on this collection here. There are even more Vonnegut quotes here, including

Those who believe in telekinetics, raise my hand

and even more .. ahh google it yerself.

Gemini and STFC’s problems : triple squeeze

November 25, 2007

Michael Rowan-Robinson, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, has written a piece for Research Fortnight about the Gemini-withdrawal issue. The RAS has put out the text of Michael’s article as a newsfeed. Its worth a read. I think Michael has the issues spot on (he usually does..)

STFC has a triple squeeze. Because of “Full Economic Costing” they have to give the Universities more money; the subscriptions they have to pay to CERN, ESA, and ESO are tied to GDP which is going up in real terms; and the operations costs of Diamond and ISIS are alarmingly larger than forecast.

UK astronomers understood that moving in with the big boys was going to be scary. When Diamond sneezes, we catch cold. But if something folds, we could be in the gravy. Hmm. Sorry about the gharrssly mixed metaphors.

Key point buried in Michael’s article : watch the spreadsheets at your University and make sure you are getting the FEC flowthrough. The biologists will be getting nervous as Charities, their main grant sources, don’t pay FEC, so their income generation now looks much weaker…

Details for political geeks only :

I was aware of the ops costs issue in general terms, but Michael refers to a report of the Public Accounts Committee which spells this out. You can find the report (HC 521, Nov 13) here. Dull reading but important … Big projects like Diamond, ISIS, MICE, and HECToR have all been very impressive in capital terms, mostly coming in on time and on budget, but they are nearly all coming in 50-80% higher in operations costs terms than originally approved. This particularly hits STFC, and looks like costing them £27M/year, even before paying all that FEC and growing subscription costs.

EPSRC will be hit too, as the new national supercomputer, HECToR has, like Diamond, ISIS-2, and MICE, come in on budget in capital terms, but has turned out to be more expensive to operate than originally expected. This is where I breathe nervously. HECToR is operated by EPCC within my own School. Its in an anonymous building out near where Dolly the Sheep was born. The costs of HECToR are dominated by the huge electricity bills, needed for cooling the darn thing. We are currently trying to work out if we can vent some of the heat into greenhouses and grow tomatoes. I jest not. Anyway, with the oil age about to end, electricity ain’t going to get any cheaper.

However … the contract we have signed makes it clear that EPSRC bears the operating costs, not the University of Edinburgh.

Or if thats not true, Richard Kenway and Arthur Trew are dead men.

Kids get the Pluto thing

November 22, 2007

I just changed my mind about Pluto after speaking to a class full of six to seven year olds.

This was my position before I went to face the weenies. (i) Given that the IAU was taking a technical decision, a pretty good one was made. Maybe not ideal, but you can’t go round in circles forever. (ii) However, Pluto is a cultural object as well as a scientific one, so one should somehow respect this. (iii) At the same time, mass prejudice should not be allowed to bully science into one position or another. (iv) My personal opinion is actually that whether or not Pluto is a “planet” is not a suitable subject for standardisation, and in fact almost has no meaning. (v) Conclusion – popular culture can call whatever it likes a planet. Hey, no problem. Just don’t tell us what we must call a planet.

So whats changed ? Two things. First, normal folk, including kiddie-winkies, understand the Pluto thing perfectly well, and there isn’t a problem. Second, they want us to tell them the latest stuff, and are happy to accept it. In fact we have a responsibility to decide and to tell them.

Today I went to give a talk to Primary School kids. Basic stuff – Earth, Moon, Planets, the stars are Suns, what is a shooting star etc etc. I love doing this. As I came to Pluto, they said “So is Pluto a planet ? Cos you all voted it out ?”. My answer was “Well, kinda. Anybody know why we did that ?” About nine hands went up and several kids just blurted out “Cos we keep finding new wee ones”. Spot on.

So the pictures I had ready were just right. First a picture of Pluto; then a montage of Pluto and Eiris and Ceres, labelled “dwarf planets”. Then I said, “Well, so there are lots of planets. There are eight big planets, and lots of dwarf planets. Pluto was just the first dwarf planet we found”. Lots of nodding.

Done deal. Simple. And really cool. Wow ! There could be loads of dwarf planets ! Yup.

More Gemini news

November 20, 2007

Today the UK arm of the Gemini Project, based in Oxford, swung into action, sending an updating email to most professional UK astronomers, and stressing that the decision to pull out of Gemini is not yet final. Tomorrow (Nov 21st) there is a meeting of STFC Council and they are carefully declining comment until after that meeting. Watch this space.

The Oxford Gemini team have a News Page, and this has collected links to the various press reports, letters that people have written, and so forth. Pat Roche’s letter to Oxford MPs puts it pretty much how I would. Astronomy is suffering because of problems in other parts of the science programme that STFC has absorbed.

There is also a nice letter from Jim Emerson, leader of the VISTA consortium, which I trust will appear there soon.

e-Science good, Grid bad

November 19, 2007

Today I have been at an “e-Science Think Tank”, run by our very own e-Science Institute here in Edinburgh. A theme of the day has been debating whether the whole e-Science thing has been a success or not, and where to go next. Two particularly interesting points. Point-1. Nearly everybody agreed that pull is better than push … that is, all the successful examples have been driven by specific disciplines (biology, climate science, astronomy, etc). The alternative – that computer scientists can design generic solutions for grateful application scientists to implement – doesn’t seem to work. Point-2. “The Grid” in the pure sense of Globus-driven CPU-cycle pooling, has not really taken off.

These two points are really the same. Going back to 2001, the Globus-SRB “Grid” thing was a computer-science agenda driven by two specific US labs, and given impetus by a very successful particle physics community campaign. Gradually everybody else realised it wasn’t quite what they wanted, discovered industry standard technology like XML and web services, and worked their own standards. There two really good things about “The Grid”. One was that it rescued LHC computing. The second was that it was a banner under which we marched to the Government Feeding Troughs. The bad thing was the rigidity produced, which thankfully gradually subsided as the more general idea of e-Science emerged.

Before Ian Foster discovers this blog and gets cross with me, I should stress that his vision of “The Grid”, as opposed to the Globus software, was much broader and more general, and quite like what we now mean by e-Science and Web 2.0 – it was about transparency, ubiquitous computing, collaboration, participation, and democracy. Spot on.

Transparency is the key word. HTML/HTTP is all about transparency of documents; XML and SOAP is all about transparency of data; in principle Globus is all about transparency of processing. But possibly transparency of processing is a chimera, for technical reasons ..

I would explain but I am off now to get my free hot dinner, just to annoy Rick Nowell.

Gemini withdrawal : worse to come ?

November 18, 2007

The agency that now funds UK Astronomy – STFC – has announced its intention to withdraw from its partnership in the Gemini Telescopes. This is worrying news, but I fear worse is to come. The Treasury has left STFC with a gaping hole in its budget, and I don’t really understand why.

You can read the reaction of the Royal Astronomical Society here, a couple of UK Astronomy blog reactions here and here, and a letter to the Guardian.

I almost signed the Guardian letter, but had asked Roger Davies for some minor changes, and he was left unsure whether I wanted to sign or not by the time he had to act – I didn’t get back to my email at the right time. What I had suggested was a more sympathetic tone to the problems of STFC … They are in a tight hole.

Once every few years the UK Government holds a “Comprehensive Funding Review (CSR)”, which decides amongst other things the budgets for the Research Councils for several years. Here are the figures. Below is this year’s budget in millions, budget in 2010-11, and average increase per year after inflation at 2.8%. In reverse size order …

MRC Medical 543 707 6.4%
BBSRC Biology 387 471 4.0%
EPSRC Engineering & Phys.Sci 711 844 3.1%
ESRC Economic & Social 150 178 3.1%
NERC Natural Environment 372 436 2.6%
STFC Sci. & Tech. Facilities Council 574 652 1.6%
AHRC Arts and Humanities 97 109 1.2%

Source : Research Fortnight

At least its a real increase ? Not really. The way grants are paid to Universities has changed, and some of the extra money is to take account of that. When you allow for this, and compare to the STFC planned programme, they are about £80M short. This is a real cut.

This is not just a problem for Astronomy. Already, plans to go ahead with the 4GLS Synchrotron light source have been cancelled, and the long awaited second target station for the neutron beam facility ISIS looks doomed. The ambitions of the Nuclear Physicists to join FAIR look likewise a faint hope. Saving £4m/year on Gemini is just a wee bit of extra help ..

So.. if you write to your MP .. tell him/her how bad it is that the Government formed a brand new Research Council, and then screwed it straight off.

The Oil Age : nearly over

November 11, 2007

Our world is an illusion. Ah, thinks reader, ageing hippy post about maya and zen and all that on the way. Nope. I am talking about oil. Civilisation is about to crack, but nobody seems willing to stop the party until the police are actually hammering on the door. We are not talking centuries or decades, we are talking years.

A few brave souls have been trying to tell us this for a while (check out the Oil Drum; Peak Oil News; and Guardian articles here and here) but its finally seeping into the mainstream media. Partly this is because the price of oil is at a record high – not just the highest ever in cash terms, but the highest ever in real terms – higher than the early 1980s panic after the Iranian revolution. Now at $96 per barrel, it is about to burst the magic $100 dividing line, which of course is the kind of thing the media like. At the same time, in the UK, we are hiiting another psychological line – £1/litre at the petrol pumps.

The market is a complex thing – a high price does not prove scarcity. The real point is supply drying up. Now the level of oil reserves is a notoriously contentious subject, but a recent report by the Energy Watch Group (EWG) takes a different approach, looking at the rate of discovery. Oil fields follow a characteristic curve, with the rate of supply being a time-delayed copy of the rate of discovery. You can see this effect in US oil, which peaked in the 1970s. Applying this analysis to the world’s supply, the Energy Watch Group show that the peak of supply is basically NOW.

The report is very clear. Two key figures are reproduced below. The first figure shows that the rate of discovery peaked in the 1960s, and that the rate of production is now much larger. We are using more than we are finding. The second figure shows the EWG forecast for future supply, and the grossly contrasting “World Energy Outlook (WEO)” forecast of the International Energy Agency.

Oil Production versus discovery (EWG report)

Oil supply forecast (EWG report)

Well, somebody is being dumb. I think I know where my guess is. The WEO forecast of growing production nicely matches the growth of world demand of course. Dr Pangloss lives on.

The traditional question people ask is “when does it run out” ? Reserves are generally reckoned at around 1200Gb (Giga-barrels); current consumption is around 30Gb/yr, so thats 40 years left… On the optimistic side, some industry analysts claim we will hit something big and there is maybe more than 3000Gb .. so thats a century of oil. On the pessimistic side, EWG reckon the truth may be more like 850Gb, and by 2020 demand will be 45Gb/yr, so we have more like 20 years. We can get/make more oil, from tar sands, shales, and biofuels, but if we do that our energy consumption and climate change problems get even worse.

The correct question is “how long before supply fails demand ?” The answer to that looks like during the next few years. This seems hard to escape even if some vast new discovery is made. The world will start fighting over the resource.

Which country’s oil production peaked in the 1970s ? US. Which country’s oil production peaked in 2000 ? UK. Which countries led the invasion of Iraq ? Hmm. Let me think now.

Of course, once Iraq has a nice stable democracy the troops will be leaving. Well apart from the odd fifty thousand or so needed to man the fourteen permanent bases. Maybe Bush ain’t so dumb after all.

tag spam

November 3, 2007

I have had some odd comment spam recently. I don’t mean Laurel Kornfeld spraying paranoia all over my Pluto posts. She’s most welcome. Its just that I know she puts comments in so many people’s blogs, its almost like spam. Her output isn’t humanly possible. Possibly she is a kind of collective, like Bourbaki, or maybe some kind of cyborg built in a secret lab by planetary astronomers.

On WordPress the floodwaters of advertising are held back by the barrier that is Akismet, but every so often a splosh gets over and wets my blog. What gets me is that along with the list of links to cheap ringtones or penis expanders or whatever there is always a line that says “Great blog ! Keep up the good work !” Why ? Am I really going to read this and think “oh hang on, this must be a real comment, he’s read my blog !”

Comment spam seems to be random scattershot stuff. But this evening I got some targeted spam. Its about cremation urns. Here it is, following a post called “A sandwich at the end of the Universe“. Well I did use “cremation” as a tag.. So is targetted spam new, or I have just started getting it cos I only just started using tags ?? (I reto-tagged everything.) I guess urns are good business. The only reliable things in life are death, taxes, and comments by laurel kornfeld.

Then a couple of comments have just been hard to decide. I got one that just said “Physics rocks !”. Well right on, man. This was just about relevant to the post. The link is to a site called “blog 4 rock”. Clearly not auto-spam or regular advertising. Just hand-crafted self promotion ? But I guess thats no different from the regular game of commenting on other people’s blogs. Click on me ! me ! me !

A wee while back I got a comment in Italian, on my very first Pluto post. Again, it doesn’t look like spam, but my Italian is close to non-existent, so how would I know ?