June 25, 2008

Its a while since we did lookey-likeys. I will start with some self-mockery…. while applying for US J-visa, I dug out my 1974 passport. The photo is scary :

Or is it Charles Manson ?

Charles Manson I think. As opposed to 1984, when I looked kinda punky :

Or is it Johnny Rotten ?

I have also been packing away vinyl, and came across the first Pretenders album. While lusting over Chrissie Hynde, suddenly, lo ! there was the young Ken Pounds staring out at me :

Chrissie and Ken

Now don’t that make you come over all nostalgic. Anybody got a lookey-likey for Ian Halliday ?

Galaxy Wide Telescope

June 18, 2008

My favourite bit from today’s Astronet sessions … The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) guys say they will find 30,000 pulsars , and 1000 of these will be millisecond pulsars. So we will have a network of these beasts spread through the Galaxy, and will know their frequencies and phases very accurately. Then … here comes the cool bit …. as gravitational waves pass through the Galaxy, and temporarily alter the path lengths to different parts of this network, we will see phase shifts. So we will be using the whole Galaxy as a gravitational wave detector. Its as sensitive as LISA but sensitive to higher frequencies.

How cool is that.

Liverpool Heroes

June 18, 2008

Six Thirty, Albert Dock, Liverpool. Woken up early, staring at the rain. Coldplay on the earphones. Somewhere within a few hundred metres of here there are several hundred more astronomers, scattered through space in other beds. In three hours those bodies will converge on one room. We are assembled together to produce a Roadmap for European Astronomy. It might seem interesting to crossmatch the STFC plan and the Astronet plan, especially because Mike Bode seems to be in charge of both. Hmm. Another time.

I lie still and try to visualise all those other organisms in three dimensional space. We are all clumps in the same matter field; moving knots in a process. Tat Tvam Asi. I am you and you are me and we are all together. They are the eggmen, I am the the walrus.

When I was a lad, you were a John person or a Paul person. Well, Paul may be a national treasure, but hey, you land at the John Lennon airport. Our conference packs have photographs of other Liverpool heroes, the heroes of science – Horrocks, Rotblat, Chadwick, Lassell, Barkla, and Lodge.

I have a link to Barkla. His desk is in my office.

C.G.Barkla's desk, 1917

Early in the twentieth century Barkla was the guy who proved that X-rays are transverse, because you can polarise them; and discovered the K and L series of X-ray lines, the key to the shell structure of the atom. For this he got the Nobel prize in 1917, and with the money he had himself made a rather splendid desk with his name carved on. This is now in the Head of School’s office in Edinburgh. My tea bags are behind a door at the front. I think of this as the C.G.Barkla Memorial Tea Cupboard.

Now … his famous work was done in Cambridge and Liverpool (not sure which bits where). He was then hired in Edinburgh as the Big Star. After this he spent the next twenty five years chasing a will-o-the-wisp. He was convinced there was another series of lines, which he called the J-series. I believe he talked various students intto working on this problem, but it all came to nothing.

There’s a lesson there. Maybe several.

Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three.

June 16, 2008

So the advisory panel reports have been released ; PPAN has responded; and Science Board has endorsed PPAN’s pronouncements. The final word is with Council on July 1st. The rankings have been nicely analysed by Stuart over at The Astronomy Blog. So where are we now ?

Wandering the halls of academe, and reading my inbox, I get the impression most people are saying “why did we bother ? PPAN has changed almost nothing.”. I think this is a mistake for several reasons.

(1) Some things have changed. UKIRT went up a notch, and LT went down a notch – although the ground based advisory panel wanted a larger movement. PPAN took the theory panel idea of splitting HPC operations into strands so some of it could be funded. XMM went up a notch and SWIFT went down a notch, but is still high.

Of course I am being a big brave boy because AstroGrid and CASU/WFAU are still in the pits, and UKIDSS is still at risk, so thats ten years of my life down the toilet. Hey Ho.

(2) The advisory panel reports are excellent – really good pieces of analysis, accurate, well considered and argued. And the level of discussion from PPAN, while still not extensive, is much much more than the brief, vague and almost insulting “feedback” we had before. It engages with the arguments, and sometimes but not always concedes points. Its just all much healthier.

(3) Advisory panel members (including myself, on the space panel) had insisted that our reports be made public. But STFC had not committed to make the PPAN and PALS responses public. But they have done so, and this is a huge advance.

Because of history, and because of the cuts, the commmunity is still not going to be happy. But its a vast improvement. If we’d had these kind of detailed panel reports before the original PPAN deliberations, everybody would have been onside. The result might have been different. Or it might have been just the same. But the referee’s decision would have been accepted.

(This reminds me of a story by Borges, about a literary critic who immerses himself so deeply in Don Quixote that he is able to spontaneously recreate it word by word. But when he has, it is. of course, not the same book …)

So is the result scientifically wise and sound ? Well of course you can’t expect me to be unbiased on UKIRT, AstroGrid, and WFAU/CASU, so I won’t try. Standing back and looking at the big picture, many things are just clearly correct, but there is a tendency to fund the future by cutting the present – i.e. things like XMM and UKIDSS producing results NOW. This is kinda brave but foolish.

Postscript When I googled “reasons to be cheerful”, although Ian Dury did of course come up first, entry number three was a blog by a woman obsessed with ukeleles and knitting. Isn’t the Internet wonderful ?

Gamma Ray Twitter

June 11, 2008

I have never really seen the point of Twitter. (“I’m eating a sandwich”. “Now I’m putting the plate in the dishwasher”. ) Likewise, on that FaceBook “Current Status” thing, I just can’t resist the feeling that the only logical thing to type in is “On Facebook wasting time”.

But today I have really enjoyed a Twitter site. I have been following the Bad Astronomer’s Twitter site on the launch of GLAST, and somehow it was all quite exciting …

We haven’t been short of gamma rays over the last few years – INTEGRAL and SWIFT have done fantastic stuff – but GLAST is much higher energy and really big. It is going to be exciting.

The BA has written several posts about GLAST recently, eg here, and here.

Here are some good gamma ray links :

The Stanford GLAST site
The ESA Integral site
The Integral Data Centre (Geneva)
The Southampton Integral pages
The SWIFT Operations Centre at Penn State
The UK SWIFT Science Data Center (Leicester)

Russian Oil Scare

June 11, 2008

According to oil-price.net today’s oil price is $132/barrel. However, the head of Russia’s Gazprom says that we will hit $250/barrel within a year and a half. This is reported in several regular newspapers such as the Guardian and Times Online and also in webby-papers such as Buzzle. Surprisingly, the story doesn’t seem to be at the BBC, or The Oil Drum . However, the latter has as usual lots of reliable and excellent stuff – today’s article shows how gas prices have been going up too.

Coming from Gazprom of course the story looks as much like a threat as a prediction – you are hooked, get used to to it. The comment stream in Times Online reflects this worry – its mostly about the blackmail thing. For example “Mary in Atlanta” says

My prediction is in 8 years the US will no longer be using oil as a primary source for energy. The West will rise to the occasion, trust me. The US should no longer allow itself to be held hostage by oil. And the people who discover a cheaper source of energy will be the “new rich”.

Huh. Solar ain’t enough. Uranium as well as oil will run out. Fusion is not “cheap” – yet. Roger Angel reckons we can do it with mirrors in space, but that ain’t eaxctly “cheap” either. We are looking at three options.

  • Change lifestyle, less energy.
  • Spend huge amounts on fusion and crack the sucker.
  • Wait for Malthusian collapse following the struggle for resources – a.k.a. war and famine.

Luckily ….

June 9, 2008

The comment stream on this blog has been better than the actual blog for some time. This is nice to see for three reasons. First, people really do have interesting and/or funny things to say. Second, its just so Web 2.0. Third, I feel slightly less of a vain twat. Slightly.

Anyway, today I shall just hand straight over. You know that luckily-unluckily game that kids play ? You take turns improvising along these lines ..

“A man fell out of an airplane. Luckily, he had his parachute.”

“Unluckily, the parachute didn’t open.”

“Luckily, he fell into a bush.”

“Unluckily, it was a gorse bush”

and so on.

So… I’ll start.

“The STFC were nervous about the Comprehensive Spending Review. Luckily, they were given a 13.6% increase in their budget.”

…over to you

Monday Miscellany

June 2, 2008

(1) Having just got a Macbook, I am getting back into Unix. Got Unix in a Nutshell to brush up. Hmm. How can anything 906 pages long be “in a nutshell” ?

(1b) There must be a joke in there somewhere about kernels and shells and so on. Err… never mind.

(1c) Or possibly a Hamlet-ish sort of joke ? King of infinite space and all that ?

(2) The consultation panel reports are all done and dusted. But you can’t see ’em yet. Soon.

(2b) PPAN and Science Board have met. No leaks. A few days ago the STFC website had a news item called Update from Science Board. It has to be the dullest news item ever. “Hem. We had a meeting. It was a meeting of the Science Board. The meeting that took place was a meeting that was one of the Science Board. At this meeting, Science Board matters were discussed. Discussions that took place were discussions that pertained to the business of the Science Board. The Board had such discussions, and such discussions were had. By the Science Board. At a meeting. This meeting was one of a series of Science Board meetings.”

(2c) News from Council on July 1st will be vastly more gripping.

(3) I can tell nothing exciting has happened recently, as my stats are down by a factor of several. Honestly, a chap writes deep stuff about Mars and Religion and so on, but all you want is the dirt on STFC.

(4) The other day, the Head of College introduced me to a Very Senior Figure from the BBSRC. This chap from BBSRC said he knew perfectly well who I was, as he reads my blog regularly. Crikey. Errr but.. said I .. you are not an astronomer or even a Physicist ? No, said he, but we read it to find out whats going on at STFC. Blimey. I tried to explain it shouldn’t be taken as authoritative information, just personal opinion, and a space for the usual suspects to let off steam.

(4b) This sort of thing must p*** off STFC staffers, seeing distorted and unreliable information filtering through the blogosphere. Apparently they have decided that if ye cannae beat ’em, ye join ’em. A wee birdie tells me that Richard Wade has started an internal blog especially for STFC staff.

(4c) I have not seen the new blog, as it is only an internal thing for STFC staff. And no I can’t give you the URL. Even if I was naughty enough to want to do so, I can’t because it ain’t that simple. It seems that to read Wadey’s blog you have to follow a six step registration process.

(5) Err … that’s it.