Thursday Trivia : Astro Pet Hates

November 27, 2008

Tomorrow morning it will be Thanksgiving Day. Of course I have pretty much no idea what this all means, but for sure nobody does any work.  So I have been squeezing in some extra work tonight in a late night drifting kinda way, roaming around the ADS.  I just found a fascinating paper. As I skimmed the abstract however, my teeth began to grind, as I came across the phrase “..we might expect these sources to be heavily extincted quasars..” Aaaggghh !!!! “Extinct” is an adjective. There is no verb “to extinct”, so things can’t be “extincted”. Yeah, I know “extinguished” isn’t quite right either, as it sounds like something wiped out rather than heavily reduced. But you can’t say “extincted”. There is no such word. You just have to find a different way to say it. Seeing it in print is even worse … what was the editor doing ? Of course I know I should relax; language evolves, often by just such incorrect extrapolations; and maybe enough people are using “extincted” now, in both astronomy and evolutionary studies, that it has become de facto a correct useage. Correct grammar (and spelling) is wotever the peepul say. But please … can I have this one just a bit longer ??

Anyhoo. Flame off. Your turn. Astro Pet Hates. Could be scientific, grammatical, or political, as long as there is a Connexion Astronomickal.

How to do a programmatic review

November 21, 2008

Today I had a query from a journalist asking what I thought of Astronet, the grand roadmap review for European astronomy. (Not to be confused with the real Astronet of course…). Its hard not to make comparisons with the US Decadal Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and of course the STFC Programmatic Review. I am not going to dig up and debate the results of these reviews, but comment on the process. (Maybe this will cheer up “blogs forever”).

European astronomers have long been jealous of the US decadal review. It has been very important in setting a genuine strategic and practical vision for US astronomy, and has been hard nosed about setting priorities. However its success has gradually made it a scarier process; behind the scenes it can get pretty tough. Since Roger Blandford agreed to chair the latest review, you can see both the excitement and the terror lurking behind his eyes.

Astronet tried to defuse some of that tension by tackling the problem in two stages – first produce the science roadmap, banning any mention of concrete items; only then follow on to make the shopping list. However this has possibly been a factor in Astronet being a tad gentlemanly. Its hard to divert the inertia of the steamrollers if everybody is being carefully polite. So possibly Astronet has been a little anodyne. However, thats second order; mostly I think Astronet has been a great success – in providing a forum for long range scientific debate, an opportunity for issues to be aired, a place where funding agency officials and scientists mingle freely, and a method for a large number of scientists to keep abreast of whats going on and whether it makes sense. The danger that various national funding agencies and treaty organisations like ESO and ESA could duplicate lots of work or do inconsistent things or waste potential opportunities is always very real. So I think Astronet has been a valuable planning exercise.

STFC attempted something similar with a committee of a handful of people supplied with existing paperwork plus questionnaires from a subset of the items under consideration; before the post-xmas fuss they did not take evidence or opinions from projects under consideration or the community at large, whereas Astronet has involved widespread consultation, many sub panels, public meetings, published reports and so on (before the conclusions.. not after).

The advantage of the “handful of people” method is that it is cheap and rapid, and it is possible to take radical decisions, whereas the “involve everybody” method is slow, expensive, exposes you to lobbying, and tends to inertia. This is exactly why STFC did it the focused way.  But … if you go for the quick-radical method, then (a) you can make serious mistakes, and (b) when the community find out whats going on there is an explosion of discontent. This is exactly what we saw between November and June this year, with STFC in lots of hot water. There were other problems of course, but I think this is fundamentally why there was an explosion. It is likewise not a coincidence I think that things have been a lot calmer since the post-hoc “consultation panels”.

Frustratingly, one of STFC’s two predecessor organisations, PPARC, did undertake a decadal-review like process, around 2000-2001, and it was very successful. It involved setting up a number of advisory sub-panels in various areas, and allowing free form opinion submission, to help inform PPARC’s science committee. STFC disbanded these committees, wanting to simplify the review process. Biiiiiig mistake.

Girlfriend still alive but only just

November 18, 2008

Crikey. Just got home after hard day cutting through the undergrowth at the frontiers of knowledge, only to find girlfriend has been in undergrowth in Foothils Park, where she encountered a mountain lion. Five minutes of staring back and trying to look big, and eventually it drifted off .. Jeez. Difficult seminars suddenly seem tame…

Head Spin

November 18, 2008

Life is packed with little paradoxes sent to test you. They jump at you just when your brain is hurting. After two theoretical cosmology seminars in a row the noggin was indeed aching and I needed coffee. This was when I saw the notice on the KIPAC coffee machine that says “Empty When Full”.

Maybe this is a Zen lesson ?

The Stomach of the Beast

November 14, 2008

You probably think that Google’s motto is “don’t be evil”. However, an inside source has explained to me that their true underlying philosophy is “No employee shall be more than 150 feet from food”. Seriously. Last night I saw the astonishing evidence for myself, and verified that this policy has been rigorously implemented.

Ex-AstroGridder John Taylor was stolen from us by Google some while back. He works at Google Pittsburgh under Andrew Moore, but is currently on a two week stint at Mountain View. He invited my family for dinner at the Google Campus. So last night me, girlfriend, and two out of four progeny trooped up to Charleston Road and spent several hours eating, playing volleyball, scribbling on whiteboards, touring round various wacky work areas, and admiring Stan the T-Rex. There are many different cafes with various catering styles, and snack stations at strategic intervals. At one of these there was actually a vending machine that required money, but this was only because it contained the unhealthiest snacks. The price is calculated per gram of unsaturated fat. Before you conclude that nobody at Google does any work, I should point out that at 7p.m. there were plenty of folk carrying their dinner trays back to their offices … Guess the system works.

They do also seem keen on democracy or at the very least its appearance. As we walked through building 42 on the way to John’s temporary station, there was a ring of small shared offices around the open plan area. John pointed at one of these. It had four names on the door. One of these was Vint Cerf. Yes. Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet. Desk in pokey shared office. Vint Cerf. Vint Cerf. A little further along the same row another office had just one name : Eric Schmidt. Yes folks, Google CEO. Office the size of two broom cupboards side by side. Random location. Wow. Is this just for show ? Really, he has an underground suite with a tank of pirnahas, a direct tunnel to the Lear jet, and a red phone labelled “White House” ??? John didn’t know.

John also gave me a demo of the pilot of the product from his 20% project. It worked. And it was dead cool. But I can’t tell you or I would have to kill you.

Guest post : Oil in 2050

November 11, 2008

I have been having an interesting debate with old chum Alan Penny about whether my blog posts on the subject of energy and oil were too alarmist. Eventually I says “How about a guest post ? Have your own say in public.” Alan has risen to the challenge … So … here we go. Ladles and Jellyspoons, I have the honour to preezent to yew, the first, the original, the very alpha of guest posts on Andy’s Blog;  I give you .. Dr  —  Alan  — Penny.

Oil in 2050

Over the next fifty or so years there will be a smooth transition away from our oil-based economy to one based on
 nuclear, coal and renewable energy sources. Or will it all go wrong? This post argues that things will go well.

As oil rose through $96/bbl, $115/bbl to $132/bbl, Andy blogged about the supply problem on Nov 11, Apr 24, and Jun 11, with phrases such as “The Oil Age: nearly
 over”, “Civilisation is about to crack”, and “We’re all going to hell in a handbasket”. Now that prices are falling 
again ($64/bbl today, Oct 29) this post explores the situation in some detail.

First of all here are some of the relevant factors to be aware of:

It’s no big deal

Oil is only a small part of the economy. In the US oil expenditure as a percentage of GDP fell from 5% in 1970 to 3% in 2000. In the UK it is an even
 smaller percentage.  Although the transformation of even 3% of an economy is a significant affair, oil is no big deal. 
Health care, for example, will be much more of a problem in the future.

Price of oil

In 2008 money, the price per barrel started out at $20 from 1880 to
1920 and then fell smoothly to $10 in 1970. It quadrupled to $40 in 1973, then doubled again to $80 in 1979, with an 
average price from 1973 to 1985 of about $60. It then fell again to $30 for 1985 to 2000, rising to $50 by 2005, and
 then surged up to $140 this July, and has now fallen to $65 in October.

World energy production and the uses of oil

World energy figures

Fuel Energy Known Years left
production (EJ/yr) reserves (ZJ)
Oil 180 8 44
Coal 120 290 263
Gas 110 6 57
Nuclear 30 1.3 44
Biomass 30
Hydro 15
Solar heat 3
Wind 2
Geothermal 1
Biofuels 1
Solar photovoltaic 0.2

(The ‘years left’ is at current consumption.)

Uses of petroleum
 products in the US, 2000

Use %
Cars 41
Trucks 13
Plastics, chemicals 10
Air passenger 7
Industrial processes 5
Heating and hot water 5
Oil refineries 3
Asphalt 3
Freight – water 3
Agriculture 2
Electricity 2
Other 6

(‘Other’ includes construction, military, rail and air freight, and recreational vehicles.)

Future supply

The ‘known reserves’ in the table are just that. New oil, coal, gas, uranium and thorium fields are being opened up, so 
the numbers for the reserves and the years left should increase.


Oil production and reserves have increased steadily over the years, but the amount of oil yet to be discovered is a
 matter of contention, with some claiming there is little left to find, and others saying there is lots more. Andy gave
 an example of this disagreement with the OECD’s International Energy Agency predicting that oil supply in 2030 will be
 up by 30% and the German Green Party pressure group Energy
Watch Group saying it will be down by

The most recent IEA report forecasts
 oil consumption in 2030 will be 106m bbl/day compared with the present 84m bbl/day, an 
increase of 20%.

Some estimates of new oil are in the 11 ZJ range, giving 60 more years supply. Then there are some 11 ZJ in oil-shales, which would be extractable on an oil price of
$50-$100/bbl. Taking the known, future and shale figures,together there could be 180 years of future supply.

In addition to this there are the prospect of ‘oil-from-coal’. Already South
 Africa gets some 28% of its fuel needs from this
 process, which is competitive when oil is at $50-$100/bbl. The extent to which large amounts of coal could be diverted 
from energy production is uncertain. Oil could also come from ‘second generation’ biofuels, but although this would be
 a renewable source it is uncertain that sufficient agriculture land could be used without leading to food shortages.


Estimates for the amount of new gas reserves are in the 10 ZJ range which would give an in total 120 years for gas.


Proven reserves of coal increased by 20% in the last 20 
years, and the IEA suggests that “additions to proven reserves will continue to occur”.


Nuclear becomes competitive for the generation of electricity at oil price levels in the $50-$100/bbl range. A discussion of nuclear fuel
 resources states that future discoveries will be about the same as proven ones. To this are to be added the use of
 thorium, and even the extraction of uranium from phospates and from sea water. Further advances in nuclear plant
 technology such as reprocessing and fast reactor would stretch reserves to thousands of years.


This month, Greenpeace and the European renewable industry pressure group the European Renewable Energy Council claimed that
 with substantial investment in hydro, biomass, solar and other renewables could increase ninefold by 2050 to 270
EJ/year, eliminating two-thirds of the need for oil, coal and gas at current consumption rates.

Future Oil Demand

Oil consumption has grown by 40% 
over the last 25 years. At this rate of increase oil demand would double by 2050. However although world population is 
expected to level off by 2050 at about 30% above present
 value the rate of increase of oil demand may well rise with the rapid industrialisation in China and India. China’s GDP
 is currently doubling every ten years, and such a rate if translated to oil demand would lead to an approximately 
fifteen-fold increase in oil demand by 2050.

However, as part of the response to higher oil prices and the problem of global warming, what Greenpeace describe as
”far reaching energy efficiency measures” could reduce demand considerably. An example of this is the current trend 
away from SUVs to more energy efficient cars, in response to the increase in the price of oil over the last 5 years.
With the current aims of an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050, there must be a substantial fall in oil demand relative to GDP growth.

Residual oil demand

20% of current oil production is used for chemical manufacturing and air and sea transport, where other energy sources
 cannot be a substitute. With economic growth one could expect these as for total oil demand to double by 2050 to a 
level near present day total demand. The larger increase in GDP discussed above would lead to an even greater 


With proven oil reserves at 44 years, and if consumption doubles, one might think we will be in trouble within the
 next 20-30 years. But positing a price of $50-$100/bbl, then new discoveries, shale oil, and oil-from-coal could result 
in perhaps a hundred years of total reserves, taking into account demand growth.  And oil at $50-$100/bbl is not a major
 economic drag, as we have already learnt over the last twenty years.  There is no immediate problem. Far reaching
 changes in lifestyles will not be needed to deal with oil depletion.

But a major problem could occur if, as seems likely, the GDP growth in developing nations such as China and India leads
 to a much larger oil demand.

But here global warming comes to the rescue. Oil demand should in fact decrease because of  the efforts to deal
 with global warming giving a growth in nuclear and renewables together with fuel efficiencies. Substantial investments 
in nuclear, clean coal, renewables and efficiencies are on their way. The UK government is slowly moving in the correct
 direction, and in the US Obama has the beginnings of the correct policies, although he does appear to be ambivalent about the nuclear component.
 It is possible that in 2050 oil will only be needed for the 20% of demand that cannot be substituted. This critical
 scenario will not depend solely on actions by Europe and the US, but mainly on actions by China, India and other
 developing nations.

By 2050 we should, if developing nations act sensibly, all be wealthier and healthier, following the course of the last 
three hundred years. However much we would like to return to the pre-1973 years of $10/bbl, we do not need to.

An aside on global warming

I am sceptical about the renewable energy lobby’s claim that increasing renewables with efficiency savings could meet
 the needs of that tripled or even fifteen-fold GDP together with the almost complete phasing out of oil, gas and coal
 use. There is a cute BBC calculator which shows how the UK
 could replace fossil fuels for electricity generation in 25 years with nuclear, yet using renewables would lead to much 
higher electricity prices. World-wide, it seems to me that only nuclear could be increased sufficiently to reach this 
goal and also to replace oil as the major source of energy for land transportation. A 20 to 100-fold increase in 
nuclear over the next forty years together with more realistic efficiency savings would suffice. And nuclear fuel 
reserves are good for some hundreds of years. The problem of nuclear waste disposal is not a problem. All we have to do
 is store it for a readily achievable two hundred years, when our descendants can with their advanced technology solve 
the problem. Our descendants will not thank us for wrecking the world economy by ignoring nuclear in order to solve the 
minor, for them, problem of nuclear waste storage. Perhaps an inclusive approach — nuclear, clean-coal, renewables and
 efficiencies will emerge as the optimum approach.


In addition to the links given in the text, these Wikipedia entries are informative:

Peak Gas, Natural_gas_proven_reserves,
Coal, Energy
consumption, Energy reserves, World_energy_resources_and_consumption,
Peak uranium, Sources of electricity in the

Alan Penny – 2008 October 29

Here Comes the Sun

November 5, 2008

The rains have ceased; the skies have cleared; the Sun is treacling down upon our heads. As I walk the streets, strangers smile their cheery hellos. All seems clean, new, and bright. We can start again. Obama did it.

Last night we went to a neighbourhood election party. This was great fun. Lots of whooping and hollering, and the kids ran out on the streets. At 8 p.m. the California polls closed. At 8.02, fifty four electoral college votes were called, and Obama was past the post. This was so cool, because our neighbours felt like they did it.

We Brits reminisced about a similar day in 1997, when Tony Blair did it. Suddenly politics was all shirt sleeves and optimism. But that didn’t work out quite as we hoped … OK. Hands up. Which of you has Won’t Get Fooled Again playing nervously in their heads ? “Meet the new boss … same as the old boss…”

Tell me it isn’t so.

Corpses coming to life

November 3, 2008

They take Halloween really seriously round here. Houses get covered with fake cobwebs, there are tombstones in people’s gardens, and skeletons dangle from trees. Folk wished me “happy halloween” on the way home, and urged me to make sure I had enough candy in the house. The weather changed right on cue. After four warm bright and dry months I found myself walking home in the gathering gloom and a blustery wind, with the smell of coming rain in the air. I could hear distant cackling. What about this “trick or treat” thing ? Did I have a choice ? If I say “trick” , do my windows get smeared with blood ?

I was somewhat prepared. Although “trick or treat” is rare in England, something similar is normal in Scotland, where it is called “guising”. As explained here on Wikipedia, the main difference is that in Scotland the kids are expect to perform (sing a song etc) to get the sweeties. When the kidlums came to my door and I asked if they were going to sing, they were a tad puzzled. Oops. On the other hand, they don’t do the November 5th Guy Fawkes thing in Scotland. (Or America of course..) I remember asking friends when we first moved to Scotland why they didn’t celebrate Guy Fawkes night, and got an odd stare. “Well”, they explained patiently, “we don’t really see that burning Catholics is that much fun”. Ahh. See what you mean.

Anyhoo. All seems quiet in science politics land. The STFC earthquakes have ceased rumbling. The Wakeham report, having exploded with all the force of a suburban Roman Candle, has fizzled out in the drizzle. All is darkness and silence. But wait ! As midnight arrives, the corpse comes back to life

Can anybody tell me what prompted this non-story ? And who are these “leading physicists” anyway ? Am I missing something important out here on the Western Rim of the World ?