Spooky Space News

October 23, 2008

I am getting emails that are telling me that HST, Chandra and XMM were all down at the same time ..

Mike Watson tells me contact was lost with XMM on Saturday… but it has been regained today.

Martin Elvis said :

“I was working Saturday night for a Monday talk & Pat Slane was doing the same, when he got paged (as Top Mission Planner) that Chandra had gone into Sun Normal Mode (ie perpendicular to sun)….

Hubble we all knew about, but I saw Rodger Doxsey at STScI (which is where I was going Monday), and he told me about the 24h of good side B ops, followed by a glitch that they are still debugging. Incremental start-up of side B systems going well; options of cross-patching sides A,B exist; >15yr old spare undergoing check-out at GSFC for SM-4 (=major reason for delaying launch).”

Martin later said, noting the closeness to Halloween :

“Cue Twilight Zone music.”

To which Mike’s response was :

“probably due to LHC switch-on, which also precipitated major global financial instability as we all know”

Hey, is Fermi ok ????


October 20, 2008

I had a very American Weekend. Saturday morning we left our comfortable  safe-as-milk suburban house in our Japanese car and set off on the six lane freeway, exiting over the hills to Small Town USA, a.k.a Half Moon Bay. This weekend Small Town came to life, thousands of visitors descending for the annual Pumpkin Festival. We had pumpkin pancakes for breakfast, gawped at the champion pumpkin (1528 lbs !!), and cheered our favourites at the pumpkin pie eating contest. Grand Marshall was Baseball Hero Will “The Thrill” Clark. Then we wandered down to the beach (still warm enough with your clothes on) where we saw bottlenose dolphins leaping in the surf. Finally we went back to town for a cheap Mexican dinner and then got in our car and returned through hyperspace to Palo Alto.

So, as the Chamber of Commerce will explain, Half Moon Bay is the Pumpkin Capital of the World. Last week on our roadtrip home from the City of the Angels, we passed through several other Capitals. Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world and yes indeedy it has an annual Garlic Festival. Lompoc it seems is the Flower Seed Capital of the World – see nice pictures here –  although maybe it could also have been the mural capital of the world. Even more appealing, Buelleton is  the split-pea soup capital of the world.

I began to find this interesting, so Googled for some more. Of course, I have been thoroughly beaten to it. There is a list of “capital of” places here and a more general list of town nicknames here.  My favourite is Fort Payne Alabama. This is apparently the Sock Capital of the World. I think our friends in Nottingham may contest that.

For many decades, the USA has been able to claim that it is the Scientific Capital of the world. This it seems to me is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When you turn up at Stanford or MIT or Caltech or whatever, it can be quite hard to find a genuine American. The corridors are full of Poles and Brits and Italians and Japanese and Russians. Its the best because everybody is here. Thats why they come. Because everybody is here. Because this is where they come …

If Western Capitalism falls about our ears, will they all go home ?

Reset : three questions

October 14, 2008

The comment thread on the “taking stock” post is getting so long I am getting tired of scrolling down. Shall we just re-start ? Meanwhile Sean Carroll leveraged my “Hollywood and Vine” post concept, but his post is getting all the comments !! (OK, he had a nice picture and a better title…)  Then there’s Peter Coles. He discovered my blog and told about his, but I shall go and sulk in a corner, cos Peter has renamed me The Egregious Professor of Astronomy. (Peter has a much better story about his Encounter with the Kansas Police. He has also argued that our new 5% academic pay rise is just going to make the grants cuts worse…) Thank goodness for Dave S and his polite banter.

So ….

Q1 : Does a good astronomy programme need both hemispheres ?

Q2 : Are we overproducing Astronomy PhDs ?

Q3 : Is the academic 5% pay rise good or bad for British Astronomy ?

Stars on Hollywood and Vine

October 13, 2008

Spent the last few days at Caltech, selling my wares – a colloquium that covered both UKIDSS science highlights and and AstroGrid tools, another talk on why I don’t believe in donuts, and various bits of VO technicalia for my  CACR chums. The UKIDSS-VO update can be found here, but you don’t get the full flavour as you miss my live demo. People seemed impressed that someone over thirty-five could type SQL in real time into a box, so I was mildly chuffed.

Caltech is famous for being a tad competitive shall we say. I got entertained at lunch by various grad students and postdocs. They seemed relaxed, but with a pushy edge. At that stage, young scientists are desperate to get noticed, and are simultaneously confident and insecure – will the world decide you are a genius or a dullard ?

The next morning I was doing LA tourism with my family. I found myself on the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Vine St, staring at the sidewalk-stars and trying hard to absorb the vibrations of Hollywood history. In the glory days, this was the spot where starry-eyed hopefuls would hang around, drinking coffee very very slowly, just waiting to be spotted and carried off to stardom. Its very hard to believe now. The whole area is so run down, tacky, decayed, and even boarded up. Further along Hollywood Boulevard it eventually smartens up, but even the famous Chinese Theatre with the handprints of the stars seems small and tawdry. Can this really be the source, the spring, of our twentieth century dreams ?

Hitting success in astrophysics is at least a mixture of talent and luck. Hitting the big time in the dream factory was almost all luck, because talent was oversupplied. And yet … the great movie actors – Katherine Hepburn, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant would be my list – seem so magical, surely their destiny was manifest ?

STFC crisis : taking stock

October 4, 2008

I just got back to Palo Alto. It feels like a turning point. The rain finally came (first rain since March !), and my daughter just left home – off to China to teach English in her gap year. We have a new Science Minister (see Kav’s analysis) and the famous Wakeham review is finally out. People are still simmering and fizzing, but the sense of alarm and fury that dominated November to April has subsided. It seems a good time to attempt a summary of what really happened over the last year. Lots of public money is spent on astronomy, and the Government has been increasingly generous to science overall. Where does the alarm come from ?

(Note : to my condensed matter and PP chums … this is just an astro viewpoint …)

  • Diamond and ISIS-2 were over budget ? Nope.
  • Diamond and ISIS-2 ops costs were not in the pre-merger budget ? Kind of. But this problem is still to come …. its not the famous 80M. But watch this space. It will hit us later.
  • STFC is stuck with covering Diamond depreciation ? Yup. Once you realise this, you see that actually STFC had a very poor allocation. Thats it. (Thanks for pushing through that logic John..)
  • STFC did not have a CSR winning bid, which is why we have a crap allocation ? Yup. In other words, there was no equivalent to the ESO bid, or the e-science bid, from previous CSRs. I guess the whole Aurora-Moon etc thing was the attempt at this.
  • It was politically impossible to close Daresbury ? Yup. OK, I am putting my tin hat on now … But before my Daresbury correspondents kill me, what I mean is you could see it making sense to fund healthy scientific activity at Daresbury .. or to gulp and close the site … but being fobbed off with a glorified Business Development Park was a cunning but failed idea ..
  • STFC demonstrated arrogance and incompetence in its relationship with the Astro community ? Yup. Does this matter ? Yup. We aren’t children; we like solving problems; we have a long tradition of being a responsible and organised community; we had established an excellent relationship and understanding with PPARC programme managers. I think it is not a coincidence that public outcry reduced enormously after the consultation panels were established. They just should have been there first.

Wakeham out ! Read all abart it !

October 1, 2008

Check out the RCUK Review of Physics web site. The Wakeham report is out, as is RCUK’s response. My RAS spies tell me they will have a response out in the morning. So far I have only had time to read the Executive Summary … but the main points seem to be :

  • UK Physics is jolly healthy
  • Physics research is healthy, but has fallen behind other areas in funding
  • Physics education is declining because of funds and interest
  • Physics research has a significant economic impact
  • High Performance computing is very important
  • Universities should be more involved in facility management
  • A small body of independent wise people should help DIUS with the CSR allocation.
  • Astronomy and particle physics should stay inside STFC …
  • … but their funding should be clearly separated from other facilities

Rats. I seem to agree with all of that. Where’s the fun in that ?