Wednesday Morning Trivia

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

34 Responses to Wednesday Morning Trivia

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    Well, where’s the fun in that? Surely more entertaining to vote for the British astronomer who has singlehandedly done most to damage the subject since 1967…

    But, for what it’s worth, I vote for Bill McCrea, who demonstrated that it is possible to be both a very successful astronomer and a very nice person (and who had the good sense never to trust what cosmologists told him!). More of a lifetime achievement award than a single discovery, but to my mind that is by far the greater accolade: anyone can get lucky once.

  2. Martin E. says:

    I just saw the movie ‘Bottle Shock’ where an American character (reacting to Alan Rickman’s obnoxious Brit) says that back-handed compliments are such an integral part of Brit culture that wthey have no word for it. So Mike can still have fun e.g. “marrtinselvis, for leaving the UK as soon as he got his PhD”, and such. Enjoy!

  3. andyxl says:

    Mike : anyone can get lucky once, but Fortune favours the brave. If we are going for lifetime achievement, it must be a close race between Martin Rees – definitive kick-off paper about oce a month – or Ken Pounds – invent and lead entire subject.

  4. Steve W says:

    I take it you are looking for something akin to the discovery of pulsars – such as the first GRB spectrum, or the first brown dwarf. So I’d say Dennis Walsh, the discovery of the first gravitational lens, 1979.

  5. Alan Penny says:

    I was thinking more of a single memorable discovery/theory

    My votes would go to:
    Lynden-Bell black holes for quasars
    Hawking black hole radiation
    Walsh gravitational lens

  6. andyxl says:

    How about Alec Boksenberg and the invention of the Image Photon Counting System (IPCS) ? Not many youngsters will know about it, but this instrument, the first electronic astronomical spectrograph, had a very big impact.

  7. Dave Carter says:

    Andy has a very good point, many readers of this blog, including me, would have had no launching point for any kind of career if it weren’t for instruments Alec had designed.

    That would have been a good thing thinks Kombat17…….

    But otherwise mt vote would go to Donald L-B., not so much for the work on quasars which Alan mentions, but for his 1967 paper on violent relaxation in galaxies. Which some of the hierarchical/semi analytic mob would do well to read.

  8. MikeW says:

    After an STFC review meeting today we were discussing your challenge and mused in a kind of post-modern ironic frame of mind that we should nominate KOM for next year’s Gold Medal …

    … this stimulated a somewhat cruel remark from a colleague:

    “but only if it’s posthumous”

  9. andyxl says:

    Yellow Card Mike. Not Red. But definitely Yellow.

  10. Kav says:

    I’ve said it before KOM has managed to do a lot more to unite the astronomy community (and PP) than anyone else I can think of.

  11. Michael Merrifield says:

    I am certainly no apologist for STFC, but it seems to me that Keith has just been doing his job. He has made no secret of his agenda, and has pursued it reasonably effectively given the cards that he was dealt. He obviously now has a much wider remit than supporting astronomy, and accordingly the problems that our community now faces are not so much his direct responsibility. Rather, we should be looking closer to home for our failure to make the case for adequate funding structures and support for astronomy, not least to an organization that seems a lot more effective at handing out the above shiny medals than at representing the interests of professional astronomers.

  12. andyxl says:

    Oh dear, the jolly quiz has gotten diverted into STFC grumbles again. So .. how about those Top Brit Astronomer votes ? How about a runner up prize for Simon Lilly for inventing the Madau Plot ?

  13. Dave Carter says:

    What do you have to do not to be British Andy? If you include people who have worked most of their lives overseas, then Freeman Dyson, John Bolton, Robert Hanbury Brown were all British.

  14. andyxl says:

    Oh I dunno, its Alan’s game really. I must admit that running a busy scientific career, writing those books, AND inventing the whirligig vacuum cleaner is very impressive.

  15. AnnaW says:

    What did Simon White do to get excised from your list of British winners of the Gold medal?! (former MPA postdoc stirs for gossip)

  16. dave Carter says:

    Actually looking at the list neither Dyson nor Hanbury Brown ever seem to have won it. Though the latter won the Eddington medal. Hmmm how do the RAS decide these things?

  17. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hmmmm how do the RAS decide these things?

    With the same competence and effictiveness that they apply to political lobbying?

  18. Alan Penny says:

    My main idea was to ponder ‘what has the roughly 10 billion pounds (2008 money) in UK funding of astronomy since 1967 bought us?” and thus it asked what the main achievements of work funded in Britain in that period was. So people with British nationality or now resident in Britain, but whose main work was done abroad would not be relevant. Clearly there will be cases where overlap make deciding inclusion/exclusion difficult.

    Giving a list of Gold Medal winners was merely a prompt, not a short list. The lists of Eddington, Herschel and other RAS medal winners could also prompt suggestions, but I would guess there would also be candidates not (yet) recognised by the RAS.

    I am surprised at the small number of discoveries/discoverers so far put up. I hope that the kind of off-line musing that MikeW mentioned will surface here.

  19. Dave Carter says:

    Alan, I think that if you are looking for major breakthroughs made by individuals as a return for this investment this is barking up the wrong tree. If you look at the amounts spent on these breakthrough individuals, Dirac say to name someone non-contentious and also no longer with us, then they are very small. What the investment pays for is a series of small steps in different areas. It does pay for someone to design and build a novel detector which others, also paid for from the same budget then use to make precise observations, and still others, still paid for from the same budget use these observations to construct a hypothesis which can be tested by an instrument designed by still others, and there is a cycle of incremental improvement in our understanding. That is the way most science is done these days. The genius of an Einstein or a Dirac happens, it can’t be planned for. But without the small stuff it is much less likely to happen. In a sense the genius of Einstein justifies the funding of Michelson and Morley.

  20. Dave S says:

    I came to this blog to explore the scene my old Cavendish pals inhabit, having left astrophysics to fill my pockets with gold and avoid the rotten stench of academia. Your argument has made me feel a little better about where my taxes are going. Thank-you, Dave C.

  21. Michael Merrifield says:

    Money isn’t invested in astronomy to make great discoveries. Apart from anything else, such discoveries are priceless, and generally come from the most unexpected of directions that are immune to targeted investment. Think of the arts. A rather larger sum of money is invested in subsidizing their activities, yet no-one but a complete cultural philistine would ask where the individual masterpieces were that these subsidies “bought” each year.

    Astronomy is culture. The fact that it pays for itself many times over in technological spin-offs, attracting the next generation to study science, giving UK PLC a reputation as a country with high scientific ambitions, etc, should just be viewed as a bonus.

  22. Michael Merrifield says:

    I came to this blog to explore the scene my old Cavendish pals inhabit, having left astrophysics to fill my pockets with gold and avoid the rotten stench of academia. Your argument has made me feel a little better about where my taxes are going. Thank-you, Dave C.

    Nicely done. Slipping in your Cambridge background (though perhaps just a touch of an inferiority complex about the need to do so). The implication that you could have made it in academia if that had happened to be what you wanted to do (ditto). The contempt for acedemia elegantly offset by a self-deprecating remark, which manages simultaneously to put across how much more money you are earning than those lesser academic beings. And then the patronizing finish about “your taxes,” as if we only exist out of the goodness of your heart, and how you feel a “little better,” implying that we are still falling far short of your high standards.

    I wish more people were like you and had the decency to take their snide nastiness out of academia.

  23. andyxl says:

    Crikey Mike – did the dog bite you today or something ?

  24. Michael Merrifield says:

    Sorry Andy. Dog bites I can handle; being patronized by vacuous pompous nobodies I deal with less well.

    It was admittedly also somewhat prompted by his pig-ignorant “contribution” to another thread where he equated peoples’ careers being destroyed through grant cuts to academics no longer being able to enjoy conferences in exotic locations.

    Talking of pig ignorance, you probably missed Sir David King urinating all over the LHC Big Bang yesterday by giving a perfectly-timed much-publicized talk at the BA on how scientists should stop wasting their efforts on useless science like particle physics, and how the Government should divert all its funding to targeted things that are useful to humanity like studying climate change. I am sure that the fact that he is currently setting up an institute to study climate change that needs Government support is entirely coincidental…

  25. Dave S says:

    Good grief. Pompous? Patronising? Vacuous nobody? Pig-ignorant? Inferiority complex? Snide nastiness? I managed all that in a 30 second blog post? Thank you for illustrating exactly what I meant by the rotten stench of academia. You can put down the mirror now.

  26. Michael Merrifield says:

    That’s why I said I was impressed — it is quite a neat trick to compress so much nastiness into such a small space. And a lot cleverer than making ill-informed vacuous remarks about academics wasting “your” money on jollies when commenting on a crisis that is destroying peoples’ careers. Or, indeed, playground comments about looking in the mirror.

  27. Dave Carter says:

    I must say, Dave S., I didn’t reply to this before, but there are some of us for whom the travel to these supposedly exotic places is the major downside of this career. Rather worse than dealing with STFC in fact. The inside of one airport lounge is just like another when you have been stuck there for hours because of delays, missed connections etc. Unlike the business community our travel is always economy class, always cheapest available route, and, since 2001 anyway, always a nightmare.

  28. andyxl says:

    Dave C : don’t agree – yes, travel can be a pain, and we do it on the cheap, but obviously the opportunity to travel is one of the nice things about an academic career – it would be silly to deny this. Dave S : not every University is like the inside of a C.S.Lewis novel. Lucky Jim is closer to the mark. Mike M : keep taking the tablets.

  29. Dave Carter says:

    Andy do you really mean C.S. Lewis not C.P. Snow?

  30. Dave Carter says:

    But in case you really did mean C.S. Lewis I will watch out for the lions and witches next time I open the stationary cupboard.

  31. Michael Merrifield says:

    They haven’t invented a tablet for it yet, Andy.

    Personally, I would prefer to find myself in David Lodge’s version of academic jetsetting, but sadly it hasn’t happened yet, either.

    And health and safety would never recommend opening a cupboard that wasn’t stationary, Dave…

  32. andyxl says:

    Doh ! Yes, CP Snow. I really enjoyed The Masters, but that kind of devious academic plotting and backbiting doesn’t happen in real life. Except maybe at Caltech.

  33. D.Squat says:

    I might be tempted by L.Mestel for his MHD tomfoolery that underpins whole fields of theoretical astronomy these days but still haven’t finished working out his handwritten lecture notes yet. Was there no RAS prize for Roger Tayler and his lifetime of important work on stellar structure and evolution, nuclear astrophysics etc? That’s just at one institute…

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