Trouble condenses

December 17, 2008

Many moons back, as the storm waves crashed against the STFC hull, some of my condensed matter colleagues were irritated by the fuss. They were irked whenever The Blessed Cox appeared on the telly, warning of “Physics in Trouble” when he really meant “our bit of Physics”. They reckoned that STFC was doing just fine. It was built to put muscle into international negotiations, and that was what it was doing. It had some financial problems – mostly due to ever ballooning astro-pp subscription costs of course – but it was squaring up to the hard decisions and taking them. Most important of all, it was delivering two world beating facilities – Diamond and ISIS-2 – on time and on budget. (We will quietly ignore the issue of whether CLRC had put enough money aside  …)

But now it seems dissension and discontent is brewing amongst our condensed cousins. An article in Research Fortnight, transcribed by Paul Crowther here , complains that STFC is making a serious mistake upgrading ISIS instead of backing the European Spallation Source (ESS), that it is ignoring the wishes of the community, and that it is favouring its own in-house labs. However, it would be wise not to rush to judgement. I know that some condensed matter physicists disagree strongly with the Research Fortnight article, and are preparing a riposte…

I am not competent to pronounce on the specific question of ISIS versus ESS, but it is an interesting example of the complaint that STFC is biased towards its own labs. Just a couple of weeks back we heard about the creation of the new ESA centre at the Harwell complex, and before that of the Detector Centre at RAL, and the Hartree Centre at Daresbury. All very exciting enterprises, but costing many tens of millions. It does feel odd to watch these things emerge within months of the belt-tightening grimness of the Programmatic Review. Of course, you can get extra money for these sort of initiatives; if they are successful they bring in contracts and funds; and somewhere in the upper reaches of STFC there will have been hard decisions about how to apportion budgets between Facilities and the Science Programme.

But it brings home the true nature of STFC. It is not like EPSRC or NSF, funnelling money by competition to an independent community of Universities; it has a programme of its own, which dominates its life. It is three parts lab and only one part funding agency. Those decisions about upgrading ISIS, creating the Hartree Centre, and so on are just as much about the lab and its health and competitiveness as they are about the science. I am certainly not saying this is wrong; we have world class labs at RAL and Daresbury (and the ATC !!) and we should make sure they remain healthy. But it feels uncomfortable that strategy, policy, funding decisons, and delivery are all blurred together. STFC is really much more like CLRC than PPARC, and I think back in 2006 we were all dim enough to not quite appreciate this. Is there a case that the labs should become independent entities ?

Make yourself feel good

December 10, 2008

I am at least fourth off the blocks here … but I recommend you go visit , get a piece of history, help a very sick child, and give yourself a nice warm christmassy glow. The basic idea is selling framed prints from old Palomar Sky Survey plates, to raise money for Alexander Thatte, the son of two Oxford astronomers, who is battling leukaemia, and whose last chance may be a new anti-body treatment. I haven’t met Alexander, but his parents are lovely people and they all deserve a break.  Apparently there are even copies signed by Jocelyn Bell Burnell … oooohhh

Old plates really are beautiful …  like a few other locals, I rescued a few glass positives from the non-survey part of the UK Schmidt collection, and a lot more went to the local art school .. but framed prints for charity is a great idea.

Visit the web site and do something.

HST, Soft Machine, and the Vanity Press

December 9, 2008

I’ve been too busy trying to write a proposal for the HST Cycle-16 Supplemental Call to think about blogging. If you didn’t know about the call, tough luck, its too late… And for those like me who thought, hey lets go for it cos it came out at the last minute, so nobody has had time to think about it … think again. Judging by the number given our draft submission, everybody else had the same idea… rats.

To keep my spirits up while sweating away, I have indulged one of my guilty secrets – searching for early Soft Machine clips on YouTube. I can guarantee nearly all of you will hate it, but 5% of those over 50 will genuflect. It gave me an idea for a post which I will think about when the proposal is in …

Meanwhile, I seem to have gotten my first blogger vanity press mail shot. I got an email today that says

Hi. I wanted to let you know that your blog, The e-Astronomer, has been selected as one of the web’s best blogs by the editors of, the most selective blog directory on the web. Each blog featured on Regator is hand-selected and reviewed by an editor to ensure that its content is topical, original, well-written, and frequently updated.

It is then put into one of nearly 500 channels covering topics as diverse as beekeeping, neuroscience, books, and pop culture. This makes it easy for mainstream audiences to find high-quality posts on things that interest them. Regator’s What’s Hot List gives an at-a-glance summary of what the astronomy community is discussing right now and is a great resource for bloggers and academics.

Please let your readers know you’ve been selected by visiting to download a badge for your site. There is NO fee involved and you don’t have to take any action to have your blog added to Regator’s directory–it’s already there.

We know your content has value, so we aggregate your titles and summaries, but our users must click through to your blog to read the full text of your posts. In this way, we hope to drive traffic to your blog and expand your audience.

If you visit our site and find it useful, we’d be extremely grateful if you could help us spread the word by mentioning Regator on your blog.

Congratulations and welcome to Regator! Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

All the best,

Kimberly Turner
Co-Founder / Editorial Director

Only trouble is when I visited the site, my posts were hard to find, on account of bloody Phil Plait writes a new post about once three millseconds.

Seems to some kind of new aggregator / feed reader. Haven’t quite seen what the advantage is compared to using Bloglines or just reading feeds in Mac Mail.. Anybody a fan already ?

Photons R Us

December 5, 2008

This one is especially for my condensed matter readers, of whom I know there are at least two …

SLAC is undergoing a transformation, from particle science to photon science. This includes both catching photons (astronomy) and shooting photons (light sources). I guess I am part of the trend on the catching-photons side. A few years back, someone like me would probably not have thought of Stanford for a sabbatical; but now it seems like a happening place, with Fermi flying, the LSST camera being built and the database under design, and AGN types to hang out with, like Roger Blandford and Greg Madjewski. On the shooting-photons side, there is of course a long synchrotron science tradition, with SSRL; but now the big new thing, the world beating monster, the core of the new SLAC, is LCLS, the Linac Coherent Light Source. Today, along with other SLAC employees, I got the chance the tour the beast.

This was both depressing and inspiring. Depressing because it starts in the historic Linear Accelerator, a stark reminder of how PEP II and BaBar are dead. The BaBar kit sits there still, waiting for a bright idea. But of course visiting LCLS was also inspiring, just like it always is when visiting a huge telescope or a monumental building; you marvel at the scale, the ambition, and the amazing detail attended to throughout the vast space. Like the LHC, like the VLT, like the cathedral at Chartres, the LCLS is a triumph of human co-operation.

Electrons are accelerated to 13 GeV in an underground tunnel; then they coast through a tiny pipe four football fields long while a sequence of devices align and squeeze the beam; then into another huge tunnel with temperature controlled to a tenth of a degree, where magnets wiggle the beam by a few microns; the accelerating electrons radiate; the electric field of the emitted light bunches the electrons; and lo there is lasing … two football fields later, the electrons are pulled down into The Dump and the light sails on, where samples and detectors await their arrival. Well, free electron lasers have been made before, but not at X-ray wavelengths, not with such intensity, and not in such short bursts. The pulse time is shorter than the chemical reaction time of most molecules, so a protein wacked by the X-rays doesn’t have time to change before the diffraction image is complete.

At least thats the plan … the first electron beam run is in a few days, but the undulator magnets don’t go in until March; first light, as it were, will be next summer. (Anybody want to tell me how this all compares to Diamond ? Back in the Yookay, do we have the next great thing, or the great white elephant ?)

A cynic might watch the transformation of SLAC as the B mesons fade away, and see an organisation trying to preserve itself even when its purpose has gone.  So whats wrong with that ? Its one of the world’s great labs. It has expertise and skills in engineering, project management, computing, and accelerator physics. It has a working culture, and a proud esprit de corps. How dumb would it be to waste all that ? Today’s tours had secretaries, lab technicians and scientists, and whether they were involved in LCLS or not, you could see their chests swelling as they thought “Hey, we did this. It was us.”

Hey, it could have been different. SLAC could have become a Science and Innovation Campus while Fermilab got all the new toys…

Everything you know is wrong – or is it ?

December 1, 2008

There is a paradox at the heart of science. The root of science is scepticism; doubt authority and do the experiment. However the result of all that scepticism and experiment over four hundred years is the most secure body of knowledge ever produced. If you go around doubting Newton’s Laws every day you’re a nutter.

Around the edges of the clearing, where we still face the darkness of the forest, its a different story. We could be hacking uselessly into dense growth, when the path to the meadow is hidden just a few yards away to the left. Its fashionable now to be sceptical about String Theory  – see Lee Smolin’s book The Trouble With Physics – but inflationary cosmology worries others, and some folks are still nervous about the logical basis of quantum mechanics. Three years ago in Warsaw I saw David Gross and and Roger Penrose  give alternating public talks. This was very entertaining. Penrose’s title was “Faith, Fashion, and Fantasy in Modern Physics” – thats Quantum Mechanics, Inflation, and String Theory. You could almost hear David Gross’ teeth grinding. More recently, Robert Simpson (the Orbiting Frog) wrote a lovely post called Five Scientific Ideas that could just be Bullsh*t . Do give it a read.

Of course some people are just career long rebels. Recently on astro-ph Geoff Burbidge set out his dish of sour grapes yet again. Mostly this was quietly ignored, but over at Cosmic Variance Sean Carroll picked it apart. But its not just Burbidge you know. Accomplished, distinguished and terribly serious young cosmologist Douglas Scott, along with his possibly even more distinguished colleague Dr Frolop, has written a series of three papers questioning many of the key assumptions of modern cosmology : see here, here, and here.

So here’s some fun. Below I paraphrase a few statements from Burbidge and Scott, not saying which is which. A big no-prize for who-ever can give the best one-sentence rebuttal or confirmation of each statement. John Peacock has to wait until everybody else has finished.

(1) Dark Energy is just Hoyle and Narlikar’s C-field, so the Steady State Universe can come back.

(2) H_0 * t_0 is consistent with 1.0 to within 3%;  there is no reason this should be the case, so it tells us we are missing something obvious.

(3) We believe in a hot Big Bang because there isn’t time to make the Helium in stars; but if the Universe is cyclic, with a bounce before the Big Crunch, some stars could be much much older, and the Helium can be easily made.

(4) We believe that black holes powering radio galaxies are 10% efficient; however, man made particle accelerators like SLAC are a thousand times less efficient than this, so we are almost certainly kidding ourselves.

(5) The biggest galaxies have the oldest stars; younger galaxies are smaller; therefore galaxies are coming apart.

(6) If likewise clusters of galaxies are breaking up, the virial theorem doesn’t apply, and there is no need for dark matter.

(7) The energy density in the CMB is almost exactly the energy density associated with converting Hydrogen to the observed density of Helium; therefore the latter is the cause of the former.