Friday Morning Quiz

August 29, 2008

OK … somewhere in the observable Universe, what happens

(a) five times a second

(b) three times a day

.. and why is this comparison interesting ?

Astro widgetery

August 28, 2008

Apologies to all you PC and Linux folk – this one is for Mac fans. It was no surprise to find that the Fermi first light sky map was today on Astronomical Picture of the Day (APOD). However I didn’t need to go to the web site to check it out. I have a Widget that sucks down the latest APOD every day. For the non-Macees, widgets are tiny little applications (few hundred K typically) that run inside the Dashboard. They are apparently dead easy to write (not that I have tried yet …) as they are basically web pages, written with HTML and Javascript, but instead of being run by a browser, they run inside the Dashboard runtime environment.

As a result, there are now hundreds of these things, including a whole bunch of astro related ones. As well as APOD, you can get several different planetarium style viewers, including a free version of Starry Night, widget versions of the Vizier catalogues and ADS literature search, two different solar image viewers, and the latest Astronomical Telegrams. Those links are to the web-pages. To find the widgets, go to the Apple download page, browse, and enjoy. Its rather addictive, as they are so easy to download and try out. As well as all that astro stuff, there are lots of amusing things, like a Universal Translator, a Roman Numeral Clock, and regular stuff like weather forecasts etc.

A lot of this stuff you can of course also get with VO tools like VODesktop, Aladin, or PaperScope. The advantage of the widgets is they take about 3 minutes to understand.  The advantage of the VO tools is that you can carry on and do some real work with what you find.

If you want to know how to develop widgets, go here.

GLAST first light

August 22, 2008

OK all you gamma ray fans, the slightly delayed official first light event for GLAST is almost with us.. all systems go on Tuesday the 26th … you can bookmark the streaming video from NASA.

At a coffee time talk a couple of days back Peter Michelson waved a large yellow envelope that he said contained the official first light images, but said that if we saw them he would have to kill us.

There’s gold in them thar neutrinos

August 20, 2008

So whats with the neutrino puzzle thing ?

A little while back I wrote an article about astronomical discovery space, and speculated on whether the golden age of discovery was over. I wrote a blog post about it too. My conclusion was that the best hopes for real discoveries was time, neutrinos, and the internet. Two out of three of those (time and the internet) are exactly where I have been putting my personal efforts. Neutrinos are tempting too, but thats big experiment stuff and I haven’t been in that club and don’t have the experience.

Since pushing that line, I had found myself cooling on the neutrino front. Amanda clearly detects atmospheric neutrinos, but no sources yet; IceCube may just, but even then it hardly seems likely to turn into a rich and diverse skymap, like X-ray astronomy. IceCube is already a cubic kilometre of ice – what more can we do ? Looks like a brick wall.

I got re-invigorated last week listening to two excellent lectures by David Saltzberg from UCLA. This was part of the SLAC Summer Institute on “Cosmic Accelerators”. You can find his talks uploaded here. (Scroll down to Aug 13th and 14th). There are lots of very good and ambitious projects going on, but some just seemed really fun, and potentially hugely promising. Do check out Salzberg’s talk, cos I might give you a slightly garbled version as this was all new to me.

The first thing is that radio Cherenkov can be easier to detect than optical. ANITA is an experiment on a balloon that flies high above the Antarctic looking for backscattered radio pulses from the collision of UHE neutrinos with the ice. Its effectively looking at over a million cubic km of detector. It has had a preliminary flight, with more to come. Even groovier is the idea of looking for radio pulses from the Moon. This has been tried by Parkes and by the GLUE project. There’s even a suggestion of using a Europa orbiter.

Next lovely idea is acoustic detection, in principle using huge volumes of water. Early attempts are being made by SAUND in the Bahamas, and ACORNE off the coast of Scotland. No GZK neutrinos yet, but these experiments are in early development stages.

Or perhaps we take Martin E’s suggestion, and just wait for some random person to suddenly say “Ow !! What was that ??”

Monday Morning Quiz

August 18, 2008

Boy that cash versus non-cash discussion is getting heavy work. Time for a change of subject.

Your starter for ten : in what area of astrophysics can the signal be detected using sound waves, and every source has led to a Nobel Prize ?

Who’s in charge of the Big Kit ?

August 13, 2008

Its terribly important to keep bang up to date. So here are some thoughts on an announcement made by RCUK a month ago and the related announcement made by STFC the next day. This concerns allocations from the Large Facilities Capital Fund (LFCF). Cold news I know .. but I just accidentally rediscovered the file on my laptop and its rather interesting. First, because of whats in it; and second, because it highlights a political puzzle.

How much is it worth ?

More every year … If you go back to the December science budget allocations you will see that the amount allocated to the Large Facilities Capital Fund is rising rapidly :

STFC 2008-9=£624M 2010-11=£652M
MRC 2008-9=£606M 2010-11=£707M
LFCF 2008-9=£105M 2010-11=£265M
University Capital Fund 2008-9=£267M 2010-11=£214M

This is serious money…

Whats in it for STFC ?

Well there’s money for Diamond and for ISIS-2 of course, and quite right too. But its also full of things that ain’t even in the Programmatic Review – the new Gateway Centres – the Detector Centre, the Imaging Centre, the Hartree Centre. Many tens of millions. Why were Universities not given the opportunity to bid for these enterprises? We in Edinburgh are running HECToR for EPSRC because we won an open competition. The ESA space science centre is still to emerge as well. One hears that ESA centre should wash its own face .. but how does all this compare to what we just cut ?

Along with these specific allocations, DIUS has published a roadmap for large facilities. This is important for astronomy as along with SKA development, the longer term plan includes ELT and Einstein, a third generation gravitational wave system. It also includes FAIR .. and it seems the ILC is back in but “after 2020”, and no decisions will be made until 2010 or 2012.. Finally the Neutrino factory and dark matter are all in there somewhere in a woofly kind of way …

The political puzzle

Back in 2006 when STFC was invented, it all seemed a bit odd. It felt like a strong wind was blowing, so there was no point resisting, but what was it all about ?

(i) An extremely well placed source once told me that the root cause was that the Large Facilities Capital Fund was felt by Treasury to be not well spent; there ought to be a Council that managed its expenditure. That does indeed sound like a logical reason for inventing STFC …But the LFCF was not given to STFC. Its still top sliced. Think how much more wriggle room they could have had…

(ii) The same well placed source told me and several other senior astronomers a year and a half later that STFC was invented because Keith O’Nions felt it was the best way to protect big long term science like astronomy and particle physics. Yeah, right.

(iii) Another well placed source told me unequivocally that STFC was created because CLRC was in a mess and PPARC was put in to sort it out. Sounds completely plausible. But it doesn’t look like what happened ..

(iv) Various intelligent but not particularly well placed individuals have speculated that STFC was a corporate raid. Some people understood earlier than others about CLRC’s overcommitment and needed to create a larger pond to swim in.

(v) Some of my Physics chums have suggested more or less the inverse. Huge PP and astro bills were looming, with the exchange rate going the wrong way …

I dunno. Give up.

So why was STFC invented ?

Accelerated Thinking

August 11, 2008

On Friday afternoon I had Roger Blandford and Martin Rees in my office at the same time. They have brains the size of seventeen planets each, and my office isn’t that big, so I could only just fit in at the same time. I could feel my thoughts being squeezed out through the crack under the door. I roped them back in and switched the brain into overdrive to try to keep up for a bit. Then Roger went off to a meeting, as he is wont to do, as he is a Very Important Chap (I’m not anymore ! Woohooo !) and Martin and I chatted of Scottish Physics and Quasars for bit.

Earlier that day we had both crashed lectures in the current SLAC Summer Institute, which is called Cosmic Accelerators and brings together an eclectic mix of particle physics folk, cosmic ray types, STP people, and black hole jet fans. All this non-thermal stuff is coming back into fashion, thanks to gamma ray bursts. With GLAST flying, the pulsar and blazar folks are gearing up for action too, getting their samples ready ….. The only trouble is, this stuff is so hard. We’ve done all the simple “woahh look at that” stuff, and we’re into the detailed physics and boundary conditions and so on. Every so often though a new experiment can make a big simple advance. Possibly my favourite is Meegan et al 1992 . After thirty years of utter mystery regarding gamma ray bursts, they just counted the buggers, and showed that they were isotropic on the sky, but falling off with flux faster than the 3/2 law : so they just had to be cosmological, and at large redshifts. Classic. Lets just hope GLAST does something that nice.

By the way, Martin was visiting Roger on the way to the Googleplex. For the second year in a row, Google have invited a hundred or so of the world’s top scientists for an unstructured brainstorming. Pretty special party invite. Whoever sees him next can ask if it worked …

Oh and talking of great simple ideas, happy birthday packet switching. Now that really changed the world…


August 8, 2008

Yesterday I complained how complicated America is, with all these damned choices … but sometimes its more straightfoward. Within 24 hours of establishing a new phone line here in my rented house, I was getting nuisance calls. “Hi ! My name’s Alan. How are you today ?”. “I’m fine, thank you kindly. Bye.” This happens every evening around seven. Its when they know you will be in I guess.

Anyway … so soon after getting a phone number, its completely obvious that it’s AT&T themselves that have sold my phone number and details. None of this nonsense about protecting your privacy or wondering whether its because you filled in a survey three months ago etc. Just part of the deal. We give you a phone number, and we arrange for some other folk to phone up and sell you stuff. Very simple.

If you get me in the pub one day, I will tell what happened a few years back when I wasn’t quite so polite to cold callers …

Bad Manners

August 7, 2008

My apologies for the absence of posts in recent days. I have been a bit swamped, not so much with work as with domestic stuff – finding a house, buying a car, passing my California driving test, getting phone and internet arranged, and about a million other things, including arranging medical insurance, and then getting vaccinations for my kids so they can go to school here. Of course, you can’t just sign up, you have to choose from about sixteen different confusing options. Do you want an HMO or a PPO ? Is it better to pick a plan with a large deductible and small co-pay, or the other way round ? Do you want that on rye, wheat, or sourdough ? Extra cheese ? I DON”T CARE JUST GIVE ME A SANDWICH !!! Brits find this aspect of US culture very stressful. Give me the Nanny State any day.

I found a website that had customer reviews of the local medical facilities. But as usual, these were close to useless because they were bi-modal. Half of them gave four or five stars and said “these people were so much better than my last hospital ! I am so glad I changed ! They were professional and courteous.”. The other half gave no stars or one star and said “Do NOT use this hospital ! They are rude and overpriced !”. Of course, there is an obvious selection effect here. If you feel the correct statement is “well, they were pretty much run of the mill” then you don’t go to the bother of typing up your comments. But its more than that. Somehow the sight of those empty boxes waiting for your thoughts brings on the red mist. Its even worse than email. On the web people are just so aggressive.

The great unwashed were certainly kinda rude about the whole Pluto thing, as I noted in this post from July last year. And many of you will recall that there was a rather sticky episode on this blog when some posts went rather beyond rude and I had to issue a disclaimer.

It seems that neuroscientists too get rude on the web. Today I got my free copy of Nature, having published in it last week. (And of course my half price subscription offer .. but I don’t think I will take that up.. sorry Phil). A short printed article referred to this discussion by the Nature neuroscience blog editor Noah Gray, following an outburst of mudslinging. The worry is that web based technologies for science won’t work if they become dominated by exclusive, agressive types. The article suggests that anonymity of comments is a bad idea, and that the intolerance of online communities will put off others contributing, and will discourage online scientific collaboration.

This blog has not been about fostering scientific collaboration, but about comment on science politics. (That isn’t how it started, but its how it ended up.) Its pretty clear that the anonymous comments are much more aggressive than the non-anonymous ones. Is this good or is this bad ?

Over to you.