The Struggle for Truth

May 31, 2008

Our academic lives are fraught with worry. Where is my next grant coming from ? How can I finish that marking and still get to Sweden by Thursday ? Why does my laptop keep saying “illegal action ?” Shall I try that weird new algorithm, or shall I just hack a quick solution before the team meeting ? Who was that person from Brussels ? Is that the same woman who sent me that email ? Where did I file it ? Is X plotting against me because their proposal is up the same round, or am I just being paranoid ? Why do I keep getting a “no such module” error message ??

Then sometimes you just stop. Do nothing for an hour or three and the dust of a thousand truths has time to settle slowly on your head. This could be the time when you reach a simple scientific insight. Or it could be when your head turns to spiritual matters. Does all this stuff, life, etc, have any meaning ? What will happen when I die ? Now from a scientist’s point of view, the trouble with religions is, well, they can’t all be right. Which one is the true religion ? How do you know ? (For the purposes of debate, I am ignoring the obvious option, that all religions are just a pile of dingos kidneys).

My kids have found the answer. You get ’em to slug it out in a nice safe virtual world. I came across the wee ones playing an Internet Flash game which seemed to consist of a bloke that looked like an Alien boxing with a bloke that looked like a Monk. This they said, was Faith Fighter where you pick a deity and start fighting. What I saw was apparently Xenu (from Scientology) versus Buddha. You can also choose Jesus, God, Ganesh, or Muhammad, pbuh. (Before you enter the site, you get warned about the Muhammad depiction thing and get offered a censored version with no face).

I must say I found their particular choices problematic. Scientology of course isn’t really a religion but a pyramid selling scheme. Arguably Buddhism isn’t really a religion either, and it doesn’t have a deity, who certainly isn’t Buddha. But of course thats just me being an intellectual Western hippy type. If you just look at actions rather than concepts, and see temples and incense and chanting and so on, it sure looks like a religion, and Tibetan Buddhism seems to be full of fairy tales. But anyhoo. There is a gamers forum debate about Faith Fighter here, and another similar game with the wonderful title of Adult Swim Bible Fight. This also features some bee-yoo-tiful music, which I know I know … I think maybe its that thing that Mozart memorised at the Vatican ?? Help anybody ?

Perhaps violence is the only way to settle arguments. I once had a friend who was a convinced Determinist, and another who believed in Free Will. Lets call them A and B. After twenty minutes of stubborn debate, B kicks A on the shin. “Ow !” says A, “what did you do that for ?”. “Sorry old chap” says B, “I guess it was just going to happen, nothing I could do.” Then B kept kicking A on the shin until he admitted that Free Will existed, which he finally did.

Course, all those events were just … I don’t need to finish, do I ?

Peace breaks out in Vienna-on-Sea

May 22, 2008

This week your roving reporter is in Trieste. Its in Italy, but it looks like Austria. Until 1918 it was in Austria, and its full of beautiful neo-classical buildings, including a huge impressive square facing straight out to the ocean. They call it Vienna-on-Sea. Eating here is weird. Like anywhere in Italy you can get spaghetti vongole or grappa, but you also get Leberkase, Schweinhaxe, and Weissbier. (The latter two known locally as Stinco and Weizen.)

The excuse for being in Trieste is the twice yearly “interoperability workshop” of the International Virtual Observatory Alliance (IVOA). Arriving at this meeting an air of gloom hung like a fog, as there seemed to be two irreconcilably different approaches to specifying how you access database tables (TAP/QL and TAP/PARAM if you want to know) and it seemed that for the first time in its history the IVOA process might not converge, and two VOs might emerge, one either side of the Atlantic. However …. while email debates turn so easily into flame wars, once you are drinking beer together, you can’t keep up the hostilities. It wasn’t easy… but its look like we have converged on an awkward but workable compromise.

But it gets better. If QL and PARAM look like warring camps, just try Google and Microsoft. In one session we had talks about Google Sky (Ryan Scranton) and World Wide Telescope (Jonathan Fay). They are both fantastic pieces of software. Primarily they are for education and outreach rather than pro work, but it won’t stay that way – WWT is already built on VO protocols (you can do a USNO-B cone search at the position you have panned to…) and they are hooking up with the Harvard IIC folk to build a “WWT-pro” version. Meanwhile as I mentioned some months back, VO hackers have already been building VO plugins for Google Sky using the Google Keyhole Markup Language (KML). Now here is the stunner .. the guy from Microsoft said that WWT would support KML. Wow ! Peace and harmony.

But wait. It gets better. One of the longest standing wars is of course PC vs Mac. Well… when the Microsoft guy arrived at the podium, he had his talk on a Macbook. Sure, it was a Mac running VISTA using Bootcamp… but still. Microsoft guy. On a Mac. I hear the angels singing.

Dinner at St Trinneans with EPSRC

May 16, 2008

And I do mean St Trinneans. Its a smairt old building just next to Pollock Halls that really did used to be a School called St Trinneans , and yes, really did inspire the books and movies. For those following my privileged lifestyle, the dinner provided by Edinburgh First, while perfectly ok, was nowhere near as good as the Athenaeum or Trinity College Oxford. But of course the company was first rate, being comprised of both my senior scientific colleagues and assembled officers of that distinguished public body, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Over the last two days, we have had a kind of EPSRC Roadshow, as part of our “Framework Agreement”. Sharing intelligence and strategic thinking and all that jazz. Anyhoo, it did of course spin my head back to summer 2006. Should we have put our grants with EPSRC ?? Mike M, keep quiet until I have finished. So, what did I learn from EPSRC ?

Non-cash primer. First, a quick summary of what John Peacock explained to us recently. When a Research Council wants a big new thing, DIUS give them the necessary money as capital in their allocation, and proudly announces the increased science budget. However, Treasury rules require the Research Councils to make provision for the future by depreciating the value of the item, and gradually paying this money back to the Treasury. To make this possible, DIUS give them a special non-cash allocation. So this money whistles in and straight out .. but of course it too is announced proudly as ”more money for science” even though its the same money counted twice.

EPSRC has depreciation costs too. Just not much. For example they funded the new HECToR supercomputer at £117M, and this has to be depreciated. (Its irrelevant that its operated by us in Edinburgh : its an EPSRC capital item.)

Universities have depreciation costs too. A standard way of getting equipment funded on an EPSRC grant is to cough up first for your NMR machine etc, but then charge for its use on a grant. What you charge is the depreciation of the asset following standard rules. Of course you can only do this if you paid for it yourself. You can’t ask for the NMR machine on one EPSRC grant, and then depreciate it on a second grant. Don’t be silly. The Government shouldn’t pay for the same thing twice now should they ?

Non-cash is a one-way filter. EPSRC, STFC etc really do owe the Treasury the depreciation costs. The non-cash allocation is just that – its an allocation, to help the RCs meet their bills. Its not guaranteed to be magically the right amount. Now you can’t turn non-cash into cash. But if necessary, the RCs can use their cash to meet their depreciation bills. Frightened now ?

EPSRC’s problem is FEC. EPSRC have a healthily growing overall allocation, and a fairly minimal depreciation obligation. However, they need to find extra for FEC. Dave Delpy showed a graph subtracting this additional obligation, showing the remainder to be roughly flat cash, i.e. buying power declining with inflation. So … grant volume will decrease. You hear less fuss about this, because while it dampens people’s plans, they are not withdrawing things they already promised. Also of course, that FEC money has not disappeared. We got it. Knock on the Dean’s door.

EPSRC don’t have a Roadmap. Most of the last two days was centred round those cross-Council themes – Digital Economy, Securing the Future, etc – and there was much talk about future priorities, supporting the community, longer grants etc. However the financial truth is that nearly all the money is still in straightforward responsive mode grants. (Called “Essential Platform”, not to be confused with “platform grants”.) They do have strategic thinking, but its all quite general, to do with future technologies, trends in science etc. What they don’t have is a document that says “in 2011 we will need to take a decision on X” or a mentality that says “if we really intend to do Y in 2013, we will need to make sure key skills are maintained in groups A, B and C”. This is because they are dominated by lots of small things rather than a few big things, so they can rely on the external market sorting itself out. Its up to them to provide the money and some strategic hints; planning groups and keeping skills etc is our problem, not theirs.

So should astro grants be in EPSRC ? I think there is an argument that much of theory and regular exploitation could fit perfectly well in EPSRC. However, say goodbye to rolling grants and any sense of stability or nurturing. On the other hand, most project grants (building an instrument, running post launch support, building AstroGrid etc) really fits with the facility world – it needs that long term planning, and is intimately connected with the facilities. Is there a clean dividing line ? And do we really want to re-open that box ? And would anybody let us anyway ?

OK Mike, your turn.

Diamond Geezers

May 13, 2008

For many weeks, I have had interesting and difficult conversations with fellow Physicists in Edinburgh who have a somewhat different perspective on the STFC situation – condensed matter physicists who are long term users of ISIS, SRS, ESRF, and now ISIS-2 and Diamond. These guys are fed up with us astro-pp folk acting as if we were all of Physics; and fear that our whingeing is going to damage us all. A comment on this earlier post gave a link to a Research Fortnight piece. Not everybody has access, so here is a PDF.

Now these guys do some really good stuff. I would say that, because I am Head of the School of Physics, but its true. Even as an astronomer, I am fascinated by some of what they do. They are measuring material properties at pressures close to that in the centre of Jupiter, and within shouting distance of the outer parts of Brown Dwarfs. They want to understand the formation of planetary ices, and we are talking about simulated planetary atmosphere experiments.

As the STFC problems broke, they too were nervous, but for different reasons. It seemed obvious to them that the underlying problem was that astro-pp spending was out of control, as it periodically is (they say). This is mostly because subscriptions dominate the budget, are set in Europe not the UK, grow with GDP, and are subject to exchange rate fluctuations. But also there were vast aspirations such as ILC and Aurora, and looming problems such as the VISTA penalties. As far as they were concerned, the idea that problems were “due to Diamond and ISIS” were just a myth. There is no Diamond over-run they said – the costs have not changed since 2003. Diamond has been delivered on time and on budget. So they felt this was nothing to do with them.. but then ..woahh !! Hundreds of redundancies at Daresbury and RAL ! And rumours of closing down Diamond and ISIS for part of the year.

So.. since then the National Audit Office report has become well known, making it clear that the problem was indeed NOT with Diamond and ISIS. The problem was simply with CCLRC not putting enough money aside for all its commitments. But, my colleagues say, this is only one of several problems, along with the others above. Furthermore, if you know enough tensor calculus to understand near cash, non cash, DEL and all that mumbo jumbo (see John Peacock’s recent comment), it looks like Government has fixed the ~Diamond-ISIS ops costs problem, which means that what remains is that other astro-pp stuff.

So all this was coffee room grumbling until the IUS select committee report came out; now the “ex-CCLRC community” have gone public, because they fear our childish behaviour will bring us all down.

Some of the IUS report wording certainly did not help. “One community has been saddled with the debt of another” was an attempt at blunt truth, but its not fair – the debt had nothing to do with the community that used CCLRC facilities. Now STFC Council have fought back on this issue – news issued by Council states that pain has been equally shared – £38M cuts on the PPAN side, £45M cuts on the PALS side. My guess is some of you will be sceptical about that, so I will let you at it…

Actually the bit that made me larf in the RF piece was the suggestion that astronomers are organised … If Particle Physics is a Stalinist Economy, and EPSRC and their clients represent a perfect Free Market, then of course Astronomy is a bit of a good ole British muddle. You can do what you like, but we don’t do things like that here old chap.

Dinner at the Drones

May 10, 2008

On Friday afternoon I gave a talk to the Royal Astronomical Society on big astronomical surveys and the sociological changes they are driving.. It pluggged UKIRT/UKIDSS, WFAU and CASU, and AstroGrid. I am proud to report these are all STFC Band 4 projects !! Woo hee. Keep going guys. The talk involved a live demo of both the WFCAM Science Archive and AstroGrid and went really well. (Many thanks to Mike Read, Mark Holliman, and Nigel Hambly for last minute server kicking.)

During the day there was a specialist meeting on the 42m Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), with fine opening reviews by Jason Pyromaniac and Captain Hook. Of course this used to be the 100m Overwhelmingly Large Telescope (OWL). I look forward to the day (2009 ?) when it gets descoped to 25m and renamed the FBT (Fairly Big Telescope). Some of the science cases are starting to look rather groovy. My favourite is the proposed CODEX instrument, which would take high resolution spectra of distant quasars. All been done before, you say ? Ah yes but they claim that over a period of twenty years, we should be able to see the Lyman-alpha forest move … i.e. we will actually directly detect the expansion of the Universe. Corr.

After my talk I got invited to the RAS Dining Club. Many years ago when I was a student I assumed the Dining Club was a sort of Astronomical Freemason thing – a secret club within the club where all the decisions got taken. Maybe that was true then, but it sure ain’t now, as about two thirds of the membership is retired anyway. It was like finding myself in a PG Wodehouse story. Dinner was at the Athenaeum, where somebody had to find me a tie. Luckily the Club keeps an emergency tie in a special wooden box. Conversation was deafening and at the end every guest had to tell a funny story. I felt sure that at any moment we would all start throwing bread rolls at Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright.

I didn’t tell the gorilla joke.

Durham ahead of the game

May 1, 2008

Yesterday I was at the fifth anniversary celebration for the Durham Ogden Centre. Maybe Carlos Frenk knows something we don’t, cos the Ogden Centre web page says that “ongoing support is provided by PPARC”. Of course, Carlos is on the Wakeham panel, so maybe the plan is to re-invent PPARC. Durham have got the new web page ready, but released it too early ? Or… they haven’t changed the web page for eighteen months … surely not.

Anyhoo… it was a splendid afternoon, with a series of excellent review talks on cosmology and particle physics by Carlos himself, Silvia Pascoli, Shaun Cole, Nigel Glover, and Martin Ward. The room was crammed full of PPA types. Guess what the main topic of conversation was at coffee time ? It wasn’t the Higgs Boson. Strangely, there didn’t seem to be anyone there from STFC.

My favourite moment was when Arnold Wolfendale asked Carlos a tricky question, which produced an uncharacteristically long pause in the Frenk flow of speech. Finally he said, “I think you should all know that when I was interviewed for my lectureship in Durham in 1985, Arnold asked me the same question. Well, Arnold, the answer is still the same …”