Sunglasses, black holes, and unsafe partners

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.

13 Responses to Sunglasses, black holes, and unsafe partners

  1. Tony says:

    Congratulations to all involved.

    As a non-astro, I’m curious about how a piece of work like this is put together. I assume it isn’t a funded project as such, or is it? Once someone has the idea, do they just ask a couple of mates to join in? or do they look up whoever has published on the subject and invite them to join in? or is it down to selecting someone who has time on the right sort of instruments?

    And how is the work divided up? Eg, in this particular case, what separate tasks were involved in reaching the final conclusion and who decided who would do which? How much is all-alone work and how much sitting down with one or more others to try to work out problems? And did the whole group ever get together, either F2F or electronically?

  2. andyxl says:

    Tony – blimey, wot a lot of questions.

    >> I assume it isn’t a funded project as such, or is it?

    No its not a funded project, but it works off the back of the money that builds and operates the telescopes in the first place, relies on grants that pay the travel to the telescopes, and relies on whatever is paying the salaries of those involved.

    >> Once someone has the idea, do they just ask a couple of mates to join in?

    Thats the most common way. Science is pretty social. You tend to develop groupings of people pursuing a common theme over several projects over many years. Because science is international and mobile, these groupings split, merge, and mingle quite a lot though. In this case Makoto had already been pursuing similar things with Ski and Omer in Berkeley, and then he took a job in Edinburgh with me and I got involved. Can’t remember when Catherine got involved, but Catherine and I used to share an office at RGO twenty five years ago…

    >> or do they look up whoever has published on the subject and invite them to join in?

    Very rarely. You work with people you know.

    >> or is it down to selecting someone who has time on the right sort of instruments?

    Sometimes if you have the idea, you might approach someone who has special access to some instrument. But more normally, like in this case, you get together first and write a proposal to a public facility to try to win the time you need.

    >> And how is the work divided up?

    No rules, at least in this sort of project. Different every time. Its a collaboration, its not a managed project. Basically in this case Makoto did almost everything frankly, and the rest of us contributed expertise, debate, and odd bits of work – especially at the beginning in writing the proposal and at the end in writing the paper.

    >> And did the whole group ever get together, either F2F or electronically?

    Almost all done by email. When developing the proposal, Makoto and I talked F2F quite often as we were at least in the same building. But the whole group has never met.

  3. Tony says:

    Many thanks for the detailed answer, Andy.

    Knowing my interests you can probably guess the drift of my next question. Could any sort of (online +/- offline) collaboration tool have helped in the process? Eg, providing a common area for notes, files, drafts of the proposal/paper(s) etc. Would you ever want to go back and look at what was said or done or created or is the final paper the only bit worth keeping?

    (Others feel free to pitch in with comments at this point.)

  4. andyxl says:

    Well as you know Tony, I am a fan of such collaborative techniques. Its becoming gradually more common for bigger projects to set up wikis, but its still rare for the kind of smaller collaborations like this one. Its too much of an effort to set up your own wiki. This contrasts with email, which is institutionally set up and you just use it. Institutions quite often set up their own wikis or CMS systems – KIPAC, where I am now, has a Plone set up which is pretty good – but this doesn’t solve the problem of inter-institutional sharing. Again, this is where email is good, because its the same for everybody. I guess many of us have felt for a while a killer app should come out of VOSpace, but we haven’t quite cracked it yet.

  5. Tony says:

    I agree, Andy, that some of these things are too much to set up for quick use. There are wiki farm installations you can use for personal or collaboration group use: Swiki is one I’ve seen others use ( But wikis might be overkill for small group collaboration.

    The ‘Spacebook’ app I’m working on now (a modification of myExperiment – – to incorporate SKUA – – technology) will be such that it can be installed by any group or organisation for the use of its members. Once you have access to any installation you could use the Groups feature to store documents, workflows, or any other items associated with a collaboration.

    In fact, if you want to try it out, just create an account on myExperiment. I’ve set up a quick collaboration test group you can try out and will join you to the group as soon as you have an account. You would then be able to access the workflow, file and pack (item grouping feature) I’ve created.

    myExperiment is proving popular with bio people and there’s no reason why astros could not use it as is. Of course, we’re hoping the SKUA technology (querying distributed triplestores of semantic assertions and annotations) will make this even more useful.

  6. Malte says:

    In case you didn’t know how to write ‘black hole sunglasses’ in Swedish, here’s our post about them on Or in google-translated English here.

  7. MikeW says:

    Andy – your public are getting restive, more posts please! Suspect internet at home in Ca would help, so will organise an on-line whip-round if this will help.

  8. MikeW says:

    … and how about a temporary change of header picture to amuse us? I’m sure something in Stanford is photogenic

  9. David says:

    Wouldn’t he then have to become The s-Astronomer?

  10. andyxl says:

    As I need something long and thin, maybe I can find a picture of the famous linear accelerator ?

    Mike, your purse is safe. Yesterday I did actually finally achieve home internet… all I need now is something interesting to day..

  11. Martin E. says:

    GLAST rumors would be nice 🙂 Roger the Blandford hinted that it was exceeding expectations. But I guess they’d have to shoot you, or take away your stipend at least, if you said a word. (so just a few numbers perhaps?)

  12. andyxl says:

    All I can tell you is that folks round here do seem to be smiling, and that for reasons unknown to me they have delayed the date of the official renaming. The GBM is already seeing bursts, as you can read on the [[NASA GLAST portal |

  13. […] Balmer edge expected from an accretion disc atmosphere, and the nu**1/3 SED in the infrared – see post here). Today Roberto Terlevich told me that Haro worked with Ambartsumian, and actually convinced […]

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