December 31, 2007

Chum Martin just emailed me to wish me a Happy Arbitrary Calendrical Fiducial Point. To anybody else dropping by, same to you all.

yer ole mate Andy

Ten Thousand Torches

December 30, 2007

My coat will smell of smoke for a month. Last night we took the in-laws and the kidlums on the annual Torchlight Procession, part of Edinburgh’s long festive excess. This town is good at circuses. Thousands upon thousands of Edinburgh citizens and Hogmanay visitors holding up two-foot burning torches and marching through the town, up to Calton Hill, burning stuff, and ooohhhing at the fireworks. Several mystified Americans asked me “what is it in aid of ?”, and “why are those people dressed as vikings ?”, and “how come they are burning a twelve foot model of a stag ?” ???? Well hell I don’t know. We just do this stuff.

The Old Observatory is on Calton Hill, and being Regius Professor of Astronomy I tend to explain pompously to anybody in earshot that in 1789 that would have been my house. Luckily my partner Debbie is normally on hand to point out that in 1789 a lower class oik like me would never have been a University Professor. Walking down off the hill, as the torches go out and the smoke temporarily parts, I can see Orion, Betelgeuse glaring orange across a distance I can write down but not really grasp.

Back home to bacon butties for eight and Christmas Special Type Telly. Perfect.

Explore the infrared sky

December 21, 2007


Most of this week I was actually doing some science for a change, at a workshop in ESO with all my UKIDSS chums. We just issued our third data release, which with exquisite taste we have called DR3. UKIDSS is now the biggest Infrared Sky Survey ever made, in terms of database size, number of objects, and effective volume (but not sky area). DR3 is announced on the UKIDSS web site, and you can get the data at the WFCAM Science Archive (WSA). Or at least you can if you are European.. but also DR1 is about to go world public, so all the Americans can get at it. This will be announced at the upcoming AAS meeting.

Mostly the WSA is for serious pro work, not for public consumption of pretty pix. However, our secret weapon Mike Read has knocked up a lovely pannable zoomable mosaic of the Galactic Plane Survey. Its still kinda patchy, but full of gorgeous things. Try it out.

Physics Crisis Hots Up

December 20, 2007

Here is a miscellany of recent developments.

(i) A petition to the Prime Minister has been launched. Please do join in. As I write, it has 6503 signatures, and seems to the 35th most popular petition currently active. This is is only slightly devalued by the fact that No. 6 is “Make Jeremy Clarkson Prime Minister”

(ii) I have written to my local MP, Nigel Griffiths. In this letter, I have tried to sum up as sanely but as forcefully as possible what I think the issues are. (Several commenters on my blog have been rather more inflammatory than I believe is fair… the letter sums up my attitude).

(iii) A Save Astronomy web site has been started. This is well written and accurate. No idea who did it ! It includes a link to a web page for sending a message to various elected representatives, and another form to let them know you have sent something.

Pound collapses

December 14, 2007

As if all the Physics funding crisis wasn’t bad enough, it seems the pound has collapsed. At the Daily Galaxy I see that JK Rowling has raised lots of money for charity. To quote this page :

“A hand-written illustrated manuscript by Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling fetched a record 1.95 million pounds ($3.8) at a Sotheby’s auction in London on Thursday.”

ps good on ya Jo

STFC : The Long Grass Beckons

December 14, 2007

Apologies to Martin Ward, from whom I nicked this title.

Act I

Keef : Oh what a lovely new toy I got !

Jim : Might have a slight problem here. This Diamond thingy seems to be costing a touch more than we expected…

Keef : Ooerr. Better get on to our paymasters.

Keef to Dius : Need more money for this Diamond thingy. Big Problem.

Dius to Keef : Nope. There’s plenty of fat in STFC land. You work it out. Its needed doing for yonks anyway.

Keef : Didn’t work Jim.

Jim : Time to frighten the horses, Keef. Richard ?

Richard : wooo !! Cut Gemini ! waagghh ! 25% off grants ! worrrr !!!

Horses obediently panic and start running round in circles

Keef : Think that’ll sort us Jim.

Act II

Trendy Young Physicist : Good Morning World. Terrible Mistake somewhere. Disaster Looms.

That Nice Sarah : You nasty Government people ! Look what you’ve done to these horses !!

Minister : err ahhh sorry, terribly puzzled, lots more money already, err err a review will be undertaken.


Keef to Dius : Now you wouldn’t want us to be damaging Britain’s Universities. That would be a big mistake. How about that extra eighty million.

Dius to Keef : There’s lots of fat in STFC land. You work it out.

Keef to Dius : What are we supposed to do, kill all those horses ?

Dius to to Keef : There’s lots of fat in STFC land. You work it out.

Keef to Dius : Oh. Ah. Oh dear.

Dius to Scientists : And There Shall be a Grand Review. And all will Be Well.

Scientists : Where’s our ball gone ?

Dius : Awfully sorry. Grass is a bit long round here.

Brian Cox soft guy, Sarah Montague hard guy

December 11, 2007

When I was a postdoc, I took my science vairy seriously, and so got going every morning as soon as humanly possible. Absolutely the crack of coffee time. As my kids got older, School starting times were a bit of a shock. They start WHEN !!!???!! So anyhoo, I was actually awake at 7:30am when the STFC £80m hole was splashed on BBC Radio 4. Thinks. Can you splash a hole ?

Anyway it was a relief. Sarah Montague interviewed Brian Cox, the friendly media face of Particle Physics. The attitude of most PPers I know last week was worryingly paranoid (the barbarians are at the gates !!), but Brian’s line today was “I am sure this must be some kind of mistake, because the Government can’t have meant to damage Physics Departments this way”. Spot on . Straight after this, Sarah interviewed Science Minister Ian Pearson and she dived straight into Paxman mode. Felt almost sorry for the bloke. Every time he tried the standard parry – “well, lets get this in perspective, because X has increased by Y%” – she thrust straight back with “yeah yeah but are you going to give these poor bah lambs their £80m ?”.

Of course Pearson couldn’t open up his wallet on the BBC, but he did say there would “be a review” and that he is “sympathetic to the problems of physicists”, and .. this is the interesting bit … that they do “have some problems with the budgetary proposals of STFC, but don’t want to interfere because of the Haldane principle”. Wooahhh. Wossat mean ? Maybe “We have noticed that the problem is how much operating Diamond is costing” or “Why do they want to go to Mars ? Leave that expensive stuff to theAmericans” or maybe “The RAL canteen is oversubidised, there’s your problem mate”. Coo. Dunno. Watch this space.

Good Times, Bad Times

December 10, 2007

The title is of course inspired by tonights historic Led Zeppelin re-union concert.. but really I am thinking of the fascinatingly diverse press releases we will see tomorrow (i.e. Tuesday .. I am posting late Monday). On the one hand, DIUS (Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills) is holding an event in Westminster to launch the new science budget – good news ! Even more money than ever for Science ! On the other, the Royal Astronomical Society and a collection of eminent Particle Physicists are issuing press releases that basically say “Panic ! Scandal ! British Physics in crisis !”. What I can tell you is that in the middle of last week most Universities in the land were informally asked by STFC “How would you cope if grants were cut by 25% ? OK, how about 40% ?”.

ooooooohhhhhh dearrrr….

Santa and Dr Strangelove

December 3, 2007

Now this is weird. I was just doing some Christmas shopping on YeOne of Santa’s wee experiments Olde Internet, when I came across just the cutest web site which tracks Santa on his way around the world … and gee… its run by our friends at the North American Aerospace Defense Command !! Well God Bless America.

If only Peter Sellers and Stanley Kubrick were still alive. Wouldn’t this make a great sequel to Dr Strangelove ?

Particle Physicists Panic

December 3, 2007

Although astronomers have taken the early public hit with the announced intention to withdraw from Gemini, UK particle physicists have not been slow to notice that STFC’s budget problems could hit them too. They recently had a “town meeting” to discuss the issues, and my PP chums forwarded me an email about this labelled “STFC cuts (PANIC !)”. Since then, I guess the panic has deepened, as the previously public web page with copies of the talks given and notes taken has now become password protected. They are obviously afraid that this is all a sign that pure science is going down in status, like the bad old Thatcher days, and are gearing up to feed Joe Public and Gerry Minister with information about how useful and important fundamental physics (and astrophysics) is. My guess is that this is off beam. There is a slow pressure to prove yourself useful, but I really don’t detect a sudden change, or an intention to run down big science. Its just that STFC got a raw deal and Diamond costs more than expected.

Particle Physicists could be a bit fed up for another reason. It looks like the next big machine – the International Linear Collider – may be a bit slower in coming than hoped, following a US DOE report ranking it rather lower than hope in the queue for US funding. Its bound to happen, but will take a looooooooong time. I learned this when I discovered a new Physics blog, called “Corycia“. Must be one of the most obscure classical references in the blargosfear, but a nice wee blog. Today Owen is calling is teddy bear Jesus.