Sunglasses, black holes, and unsafe partners

July 25, 2008

Oh Proud Day ! I am on the front page of the STFC web site ! This is the “polarised sunglasses see black hole disks” story. Doesn’t seem to have made the Daily Mirror, but has reasonably spread round the Internut, including Skymania, New Scientist, Universe Today, Astronomy Now and Chris Lintott in his American Manifestation . A week ago I was even more excited, as the first draft of the press release had a quote from Keef, saying how important UKIRT was to UK astronomy, but it got changed into a quote by Chris Davis. Better in some ways and a shame in others.The person who deserves nearly all the credit by the way is Makoto Kishimoto, one of the most careful but insightful astronomers I know.

If you can’t afford a subscription to Nature, you can read it on astro-ph. Here is the story. Quasar phenomenon supposedly caused by accretion onto supermassive black holes. Prediction since 1973 that accretion discs should show nu**1/3 spectrum – very blue. In optical-UV you don’t see this, but, well, there are complications. Should be a safer bet in the IR, coming from the outer bits of disc. But in the IR all you can see is the emission from the damned dust on much larger scales. Thinks. Light scattered from the disc is polarised, so maybe measuring the polarised flux shows pure uncontaminated disc ? Ahh .. but dust emission is often polarised too. Rats. But wait ! Some quasars show no polarisation in the broad emission lines.. in which case any polarisation must be caused interior to the BLR … try these.. Bingo. Nu**1/3. Or actually, about nu**0.4. Thirty year old theory finally vindicated. Phew. Sits down with glass of whisky.

So for half of today, when I wasn’t googling for references to black hole sunglasses, I was at a meeting here at SLAC today celebrating the career of ex-SLAC-Director Jonathan Dorfan. He is the man credited with pulling off PEP-II and BaBar, turning SLAC into the B-factory, focusing on CP violation and the matter-anti-matter asymmetry. But years later, he was also the man who swung the ship round to head towards a future of light sources, lasers, and biology. (But also particle astrophysics … GLAST, SNAP, LSST … thats why I’m here folks..).

One of the key talks was by Albrecht Wagner from DESY, here to remind us that actually there was still a bright future for particle physics, and indeed Linear Colliders are back in fashion. Errrr… just a shame that the US and UK seem to have changed their minds and pulled the funding plug. The only tense moment in a warm and cuddly day was when Wagner said that the US should now be considered “an unsafe partner for international projects”. Think I’ll stop there.

Apple meta mania

July 12, 2008

So there I was driving down University Ave, exploring Palo Alto, when I saw a line of young folk snaking round the corner. I thought I had discovered the downtown movie theatre. But no. It was the Apple Store. They were all desperate for their new 3G iPhones. Curious thing, the iPhone. Mostly I find myself thinking “wuh ? its only a PHONE”. I don’t even own a mobile phone. Hey, either you send an email or you meet someone. But there is another me somewhere inside who is inching out and saying “want… want … want …”. Why is this ???

There is clearly a mania about the mania. Every newspaper I see or TV channel I tune in to is going on about iPhone mania even more than about iPhones. The story has become its own story. (Didn’t Marshall McLuhan say that ? Or was it Andy Warhol ?) Perhaps I can start a craze for stories about the stories about the craze ?

Any iPhone-o-clasts out there ?

Sweet and Sour, Nuclear Power

July 10, 2008

Being stuck in the grim Californian sunshine I didn’t make it to the STFC Town meeting on the 8th. So I don’t have insightful analysis for you. Instead this is a kind of dummy post so other people can tell me what happened.

Following up links from Paul Crowther’s site, the press seem to think the entire thing was about Jodrell Bank, so everything is ok now. Oh good. You might expect me to whinge on about AstroGrid now, but I just don’t have the energy. (Its too hot here). Hang on a tick though, the Telegraph seems to have a story about STFC destroying the country’s nuclear power capability !!! Naturally, STFC have put out a statement explaining that they are reponsible for the nation’s power stations.. Fair enough. But perhaps someone has some facts on how much has been cut on the Nuke Physics side ?

The Pale Face of Stanford

July 6, 2008

Your correspondent is now in Silicon Valley. My tour of duty as Head of Physics is now over, and I am starting a year long sabbatical at SLAC. My main aim is to kick-start some collaborations with LSST folk, especially on the database side, but its also exciting to be here just after the launch of the gamma-ray space telescope, GLAST . Meanwhile I will also keep working on the VO. AstroGrid has a tradition of being more or less location independent, and it has been noted that I will be working in the same time zone as our official night-owl, Dave Morris.

The story at SLAC these days is in some ways similar to STFC-land, and in others very different. They have had to lay off 200 staff, the B-factory has closed down, work on the ILC has been halted, and the famous tunnel, the straightest object in the world, has been turned into a light source, the LCLS . Less particle physics, more chemistry, biology and materials physics. However they are also diversifying into astrophysics, which is why I am here. This builds on their experience – the GLAST Large Area Telescope (LAT) is really like a particle physics detector in space, with silicon strip trackers and a calorimeter, and the LSST data rate is a drip compared to Babar, let alone the LHC.

Here is another interesting distinction. A Senior Person told me he gets worn down by endless reviews of SLAC, which go on and on and nobody really takes any decisions. Much of our problem with STFC has I think been that the decision making has been too brash and bold….

Meanwhile, we are under pressure to prove our economic worth, as discussed in various comments on this blog over the last few days. Well, SLAC didn’t invent the Web, but it was the first meeting place of the Homebrew Computer Club which is where Jobs and Wozniak got started, and to whom Bill Gates addressed his Open Letter to Hobbyists. The street that SLAC is on, Sand Hill Road, contains an amazing density of venture capitalists. And of course Stanford as a whole is a hot house of ideas moving out from science to industry. Brin and Page built the Googleplex as close as they could to the Alma Mater.

Stanford itself originates from sentimental philanthropy. Leland Stanford was a self made California millionaire. The Stanfords were the Posh and Becks of their day, with newspapers full of stories of their opulent lifestyle in San Francisco. They also had a huge farm down south of the city in nowhere land. Tragedy struck the family in 1884 when their son died of Typhoid on a trip to Florence. So in the spirit of the times, they created the Leland Stanford Junior University in his memory.

So of course I knew none of this three days ago, but the mythology and historical resonances of a place like this are a kind of vapour that you can’t avoid breathing. Gets a bit mawkish sometimes though … Exploring the campus, I found the Cantor Art Centre. It has some good stuff, and a room full of Stanford memorabilia, including Leland Junior’s plaster death mask. It just sits there on the wall reminding you of the Victorian image of death. Milky white, hair neat, eyes closed.

C-day Plus One

July 3, 2008

Here I am in the very thick of the madding crowd : Heathrow Terminal Three, en route to San Francisco. Yesterday STFC Council met and finally sealed the fates of various projects (*). The outcome is described in a pdf file you can get here. STFC folk will brave up to the crowd and explain it all at the Town Meeting on July 8th … but there ain’t really any surprises, so not sure how that will go. For me, its a mixed story; the approach to UKIRT/UKIDSS is much saner than before; the WFAU/CASU stuff is peripheral, outside the core work, and shouldn’t really have been in the review at all; and AstroGrid as expected is sacrificed. The previous two days I have been running the twice yearly AstroGrid Consortium Meeting, and we have planning how to “gift wrap” our product as professionally as we can, on the assumption that our early closure would indeed be announced. The referee’s decision is final; no barricades will be manned or TV crews invited; but if I hear that there are no cuts, only “unfulfilled aspirations”, I will spit. E-science fans may note that the long term situation is much more complex; the Astronet facility roadmap strongly recommends continued investment in the VO, and the international drive in this direction is undiminished; all we have done is relinquish the UK lead in this area. Hey, you can’t have everything. No really, you can’t. Probably we have just displaced the cost of dealing with the global data management infrastructure elsewhere. Watch this space.

So whither STFC ? They seem to be doing a Geoffrey Boycott, sticking doggedly at the wicket and adding a run or so every few minues. The Select Committee report was vicious, with many truths but also unecessary personal attacks on KOM. The Government response seemed to be a stubborn and patronising denial of all the points … but … you will note that there is now an organisational review of STFC underway. Is this a deflection, or a lining up for the firing squad ? Time will tell.

You have only until July 9th to make your input to the review

Meanwhile, lets look on the bright side ….

  • PPAN did make SOME changes
  • DIUS is looking hard at whether STFC is the right structure
  • MoonLite is being opened up to very public scrutiny
  • Advisory Panels are being re-invented
  • The competent ex-PPARC bureaucracy is re-asserting itself

* posted next day, stateside