Circus 2.0

September 28, 2008

My commenters are obsessing over the woes of STFC as usual, but I can’t quite get in the swing of it.   Instead, I am enjoying two weeks of astro-geekery. First up was the .Astronomy Conference in Cardiff; then a workshop in Cambridge to work out how to take forward the VO agenda in the UK ; and this coming week, the twice yearly VOTECH meeting.

Various folk have already blogged about .Astronomy  – Stuart Lowe, Chris Lintott, Sarah Askew, and the Master of Ceremonies, Robert Simpson (aka Orbiting Frog)  keeping the twitter going. It was a very virtual meeting, with a distributed audience following the meeting on Ustream, and intercontinental video  talks by Phil PlaitPamela Gay, Alberto Conti and others.  Apparently Alberto invented Google in a bar one evening, or something like that. Highlight for me was learning about the WETI Institute. Their big idea is that there is no point searching for extraterrestrial intelligence. Just wait for it. They have a screensaver you can download. There is no need to be connected to the Internet, because the aliens will find a way to contact you anyway.  Check out the WETI web page. Its a hoot.

Of course everybody under thirty was dead keen on all the Web 2ish things – blogs, twittering, YouTube, Facebook, adding your own stuff to Google Sky and so on. Unlike the old fashioned plain brown Web, Web 2.0 is famously democratic and participatory. Its the people’s Web ! You don’t just read stuff, you change it ! Call me an old cynic, but I’m not so sure. All this stuff relies on an infrastructure provided by a handful of massive corporations. They set the parameters. They can switch it off any time they like. They can change the rules so you can only write about approved subjects. They can do a deal with the FBI. You won’t even know. The illusion of participation is really just a Circus. Every time you update your status on FaceBook thats another five minutes you have avoided thinking about who has the power and why.

But lets not get depressed. Next week Wakeham reports, and we will have such fun.

Stone Lions and the End of Particle Physics

September 22, 2008

On Thursday I attended a meeting of the SLAC User’s Organisation (SLUO). Half the talks were about astrophysics, and even some about light sources, but the tone and the worry was dominated by particle physics and its position in the US. There were talks from suits at DOE, the NSF, and the OMB, all of whom had warm words and encouragement, but also barely coded hints about the scepticism in Washington. “Why does it have to be so all or nothing ?” and “does the US really need to lead this area ?'” and of course “whats the economic impact” ? Its very frustrating because the people in power do believe its gripping stuff – thats not the problem –  and with the LHC switching on the next few years will be very exciting  .. but they don’t see where its going, why it has to cost so much, or why anybody needs a big machine in the US, as opposed to some postdocs analysing data. Strikingly, the afternoon had several talks from particle physicists who were re-training themselves as astrophysicists, who explained how much fun it was. More of them later …

Two days later I was catching a flight from San Francisco to London, for a two week stint of back-to-back meetings in the UK. I am typing this about thirty hours later, still only mid-Atlantic, having been booked at various times on seven different flights (involving five different cities) only three of which I have actually been on … This sort of thing hasn’t happened to me too often I am glad to say, but periodically every traveller hits a nightmare journey like this. At first you get real tense, and your adrenalin rises as you try to calculate the options and optimise .. but eventually you just figure what the heck, when I get there I’ll be there, and you start joking with the flight attendants stuck in the same situation.

Suddenly I remembered a poem I read many many years ago. I can’t remember the title or the author, so if the the poet happens to read this blog one day, please forgive me for stealing your idea uncredited. It was in a magazine called Crabgrass. So here is my clumsy prose rendering …

… one morning the citizens of London wake up to find the streets entirely filled with stone lions. Motion is impossible. Half the workforce get on the phone, try to figure out a way round it, register complaints, send apologies to bosses and instructions to underlings, and so on, but all to no avail. The other half stare for a few minutes, then go back inside, make some coffee, read a book, and have an unexpectedly pleasant day.

You join the dots.

Youth, Energy, and Riches

September 17, 2008

Its student orientation week at Stanford. The streets are lined with map-wielding parents and students waving banners that say “Welcome to Stanny !!” and such-like. The arrival of students seems to have increased the black population of Palo Alto greatly (from zilch to a weeny bit) which is an interesting and pleasant surprise. The Stanford Daily has re-started, and I picked this up on the way to grab some coffee. First article right up there at the top was about two Senators trying to investigate how much money Rich Universities really have and whether they should be spending rather than hoarding.

It seems that Stanford’s endowments total $17.2 billion.

I came over all queasy.

I think that’s even bigger than Harvard’s pot full of filthy lucre  ?

Oh, so … what would you do with $17.2 billion dollars ????

Geek Tour

September 13, 2008

My daughter’s friend Lewis is here to visit. He’s a computer whizz-kid – eighteen and already has his own business building web sites – so he was pretty excited coming to Silicon Valley. I bought some McIntosh apples specially for his arrival. Apparently they were the favourite apple of Macintosh inventor Jef Raskin . (I was disappointed. In the McIntosh. Not the Macintosh.)

Yesterday we did the geek tour. Lewis had already found the garage at 367 Addison Ave where BillDave HewlettPackard started in the fifties, and the Facebook Offices in University Ave. (The HP garage is officially California historic landmark number 976). I had told him that Steve Jobs lives a few blocks away in a modest house, but we don’t know where. Today we drove past the Googleplex on Amphitheatre Parkway, and most important of all, went to the Apple Campus at 1 Infinite Loop Cupertino. It is HUGE. I was ready for a giant corporate building of some kind, maybe some surrounding greenery, but there is street after street after street of Apple buildings. Seems to be half of Cupertino. I was going to call this post “a visit to the Mothership” but when we dropped in to the company store I found there were T-shirts for sale that said “I visited the Mothership” so suddenly that all seemed obvious. Lewis loaded his bag with goodies.

Americans tend to tell you they don’t have any history, and that they are jealous of Europeans and their ancient buildings. The truth is that Americans are obssessed with history, and the place is crammed full of the stuff. Its not a quaint museum thing. Its real and resonating. Years back when I lived in Massachusetts you could walk round the Freedom Trail or drive out to Concord and practically feel the Minutemen breathing down your neck; people were debating whether their precious freedom was being eroded. History happens fast. The modern world started here in the nineteen fifties, accelerated in the 1970s, and again in the 1990s dotcom boom. As soon as I got here, people told me about the Homebrew Computer Club that used to meet in the Panofsky Auditorium.

Of course, if the HP Garage is the birthplace of Silicon Valley, and the Apple Campus is the Mothership, the Stanford Campus, where all that useless academic research goes on, is the Queen Bee. Sorry about the gharssly mixed metaphors, but there’s got to be a lesson there somewhere.

World Not Destroyed

September 10, 2008

So the LHC got switched on. Its got some good publicity on the Internut. Right now the latest post by Quantum Survivor is the WordPress “Hawt Post” and the Google front page has a cartoon of the LHC !! My Edinburgh PP chums are in LHCb. Franz Muheim sent round a link to what the data looks like in the LHCb RICH detectors. Apparently 140,000 photons were detected in this one event.

Here is a really nice BBC video link. The official CERN press release is here. And of course there is plenty of nice material at the STFC web site. And you  might want to catch the rather silly LHC rap. (Got this link from Adrian Hill.) The “related videos” you will find there are a hoot. If you have ten minutes to spare you can find out how Nostradumus predicted that the LHC will destroy the world.

So far the world hasn’t been destroyed. I’m glad about that, as I have some plans this weekend.

Angels over Stanford

September 5, 2008

I had lunch today at the Quadrus cafe, just across the road from SLAC. This is where the angels eat. Years back, Sand Hill Road was buzzing with busy Venture Capitalists, shovelling their money into computer startups. Apparently they are still there, but now they are for looking for alternative energy technologies. Steve Kahn told me that office rental is six times higher around here than in Palo Alto.  This makes SLAC folks nervous. Will Stanford keep backing them when they could flog the land instead ?

On the way back I picked up Symmetry, the PR magazine for Fermilab and SLAC combined. By PR mag standards, its actually a pretty good read. The editorial took me by surprise – it was labelled “Positive News for Particle Physics”. (I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d kept up with Mark Lancaster’s web page or read this Physics World article )

Back before Christmas, panic and despondency hit US physics at pretty much the same time as the STFC crisis blew up in the UK. Work on the ILC and ITER was cut right back, and almost three hundred redundancies (“layoffs” in US-speak) planned between SLAC and Fermilab. Now it seems Congress has “appropriated” an extra $32M, and the President has announced a supplemental budget. The planned Fermilab layoffs have been halted. Its too late for 125 people laid off by SLAC, but apparently they might want to re-apply …

So how come Parliament can’t vote us some extra money ? Tough guy Willis wrote a stinging report … but he didn’t get us any money. Or did he ? Its pretty hard to tell in the UK system. It could well be that behind the scenes DIUS and the Treasury are doing what they can for STFC, slipping over extra LFCF or TSB money, so they can save money in their main budget etc etc .. but how would we know ? The only rule is that the Minister cannot imply that the Government made a mistake. There simply cannot be any publicly announced rescue. We all know that. But why not ?  Cue the Watcher to tell us its because the Government believes you mustn’t give in to children with tantrums.

Wednesday Morning Trivia

September 3, 2008

Recently a couple of people have suggested posts for the blog. In a wee while I shall try out the Problem of the Black Hole that Destroyed the Earth …. but first a light hearted quiz, suggested by old chum Alan Penny. No I am not going to get you to guess who the Watcher is. Actually, its not really a quiz, more of a pub argument thing, started in St Andrews.

Which British Astronomer has made the most important single contribution since the discovery of pulsars in 1967 ?

Apparently up there in Golf-Land no clear consensus emerged, and for some strange reason Alan thought the readers of this blog might have interesting opinions. As a prompt list, below are all the RAS Gold Medallists since 1967 who were British Astronomers or who worked in Britain. (Note there is a fuzzy area between the Geophysicists and proper Astronomers…)  Those who have a candidate who is not on this list may wish to take note of the next RAS award nomination deadline.

House Rule. Only votes for please, no votes against. Most of the people below and other potential candidates are still working and might even have a PhD student who reads the blog …

The Gold Medallists.

71 Richard Woolley
75 Ernst Opik
76 Bill McCrea, John Ratclife
79 Charles Wynne
81 Bernard Lovell
82 Harrie Massey
83 Michael Seaton
84 Stanley Runcorn
85 Stephen Hawking
87 Martin Rees
89 Ken Pounds
90 Bernard Pagel
93 Donald Lynden-Bell
01 Hermann Bondi
02 Leon Mestel
05 Carole Jordan
07 Len Culhane, Nigel Weiss