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.