Turning donuts into PhDs

February 26, 2009

Yesterday at KIPAC tea, a graduate student wished everybody “a happy Mardi Gras”. This lost me, but later it made sense; when I got home to Little Britain there were pancakes for tea, for lo, it was Pancake Day, a.k.a. Shrove Tuesday. The pancakes were scrumptious but not enough for my hungry kids. Grad students are possibly even more voracious than teenagers, but luckily at KIPAC tea there is a goodly supply of donuts. This is an essential part of a PhD education of course; supply stodge and the students will turn up to the talks, absorbing some knowledge along with the sugar.

Is this investment worth while ? Over at the PeterBlog, Professor C worries that we are over producing students, because only one in ten can become an academic. Actually, without this overproduction, Peter and I would be out of a job. Why does the Government pay for astronomers ? Because we do have an economic impact. Our product is people.

We all accept this where undergraduates are concerned. Half of our job is teaching; we do our bit for the academic sausage machine, churning out the scientically literate workforce our society needs. That makes it economically feasible to pay us for the other half of our job, scientific research. We tend to think of PhD students as part of this second world; our apprentices, each producing their magnum opus after three years. But that world has long gone. The PhD is an advanced training degree. A decade ago, while I was on PPARC Council, studentships were doubled. Why ? Because we were not getting enough astronomy done ? Nope. Because the captains of industry said “we can use more of these” and yea verily the Treasury purse strings were opened.

So the donuts make sense.

Mostly this is good. The Government is happy to continue paying for pure science, because they can see that every pound spent puts three back into the economy. But they must be thinking “hmmm.. wonder if we can squeeze six out of them ?” They already did this to us on undergraduate numbers. Postgrads could be next.

Physics isn’t Fun

February 16, 2009

Seems the Government has decided the British Public doesn’t value science enough. Science Minister Lord Drayson wants to combat the perception that Science is elitist, and a campaign has been launched called “Science : So What ?” . I find myself wriggling uncomfortably. Well of course we want the public to appreciate science; and of course we want more kids picking science subjects at school; and of course we want more physics teachers. And I love doing PUS stuff myself – public lectures, talks to schoolkids. So why do I feel uncomfortable ? Here’s three reasons :

  1. You don’t get dates if you look desperate. The lady doth protest too much. Anybody remember that old British Rail campaign ? The one that said “We’re getting there”. Cringe.
  2. People don’t like being patronised. Should we be telling people science is fun fun fun ?  Its not a Saturday morning cartoon. Its important. Physics is very difficult. But its worth it. Sue Blakemore made this point in the Guardian recently.
  3. The public know perfectly well how important science is. Maybe the problem is with the power brokers : the captains of industry, the mandarins, the Threadneedle Street Masters of the Universe.  I speak of the UK : in the US, its probably the other way round.

Or maybe I am just being a grinch cos its been raining for three days.

Astro Blunders

February 9, 2009

Hmm. Seems Telescoper is assuming the mantle of dissecter of STFC politics. And as ever there are about eight hundred people quicker than me at feeding you the hot new piccies .  Better go for good ole astro-trivia….

In Bertie and the Aliens I told the story of a distinguished astronomer who didn’t know his constellations. This prompted an embarrassed confession by one “Perry Petia” caught out not knowing how to use his/her own Department’s telescope. I thought more of this sort of thing would be rather fun. So …. I would welcome entries in three categories :

(A) Personal confessions

(B) Blunders you have heard about, especially by well known astronomers

(C) Votes for best historical dead ends.

You may wish to post anonymously in this instance, and also may wish to protect the identity of the actors in Category B, as I did with Bertie. I leave this to your judgement. In Category B, well testified stories are best of course, but urban myths will do too as long as clearly marked as such.

I’ll kick off in reverse order.

(C) My favourite is the sad history of nebulium. For sixty years people thought the bright nebular emission lines came from a new element, but nobody could find it, after years of fruitless searching.

(B) I was once observing on the 24 inch on Mount Hopkins with John Huchra. We were manually moving the guider-TV around (ahh ! the good old days !) when the star disappeared in a kind of fat blank patch somewhere near the middle of the field. “What happened ?” says I. “Oh that.” says John. “Somebody I know kinda maybe pointed the guider at Jupiter. Hasn’t been the same since.”

(A) Not saying. Far too embarrassing. If a good stream gets going, will slip this in anonymously.

Right. Who’s up ?

Gamma Rays coming at you

February 6, 2009

Just came back from a coffee time talk by David Paneque, showing the GeV light curve of blazar MKN 421 over 3 months, as measured by the Large Area Telescope (LAT) on Fermi. In the middle of his talk he got everybody excited because he just mentioned in passing that the LAT team are today submitting a paper to astro-ph describing the first public LAT catalog. This is a 10 sigma cut after 3 months data and has about a couple hundred sources. (This is what I remember from reading a slide, so treat with caution !). A few highlights… There as many gamma-ray only pulsars as previously known radio pulsars. There a hundred blazars, and two radio galaxies – Cen A and Perseus A, but NOT M87, and none of the bright Seyferts. There is a smattering of X-ray binaries. There are 37 unassociated objects : mostly at low latitude, so maybe more pulsars, but half a dozen high latitude mysteries.

Just on the off-chance, I fired up VODesktop and Topcat to see if HEASARC have already published the catalog. They haven’t, but there is already other Fermi stuff there. For example, you can get a table of 145 bursts seen by the GBM. Try this :

  • start up VODesktop and Topcat
  • click “New Smartlist”
  • search for waveband=gamma-ray and any-field=Fermi
  • this gives four resources available at HEASARC
  • select GBM burst catalog
  • click “query” which launches the Astroscope window
  • search 180 degree radius at any position
  • this returns a  VOTable with 145 results – the whole catalog of course
  • click “send to Topcat”
  • look at the table, plot stuff etc..

For example, if you now simply plot RA vs Dec, you can see there’s a whole clump of bursts around ra=235 dec =-55. Wossat ?


February 3, 2009

OK, I admit I couldn’t suppress a contented grin when I started seeing emails from back at ROE about how they are having trouble clearing the paths of snow … Right now its 68 degrees and sunny here on Stanford campus.

But if you want your revenge, you can take a look at this web page showing the history of the dollar-pound exchange rate. Can you guess the point on the graph where Andy decides he can afford a Palo Alto style rent on his UK salary, and signs a contract to pay that for a whole year ?  Anybody else taken a 30% pay cut recently ?? Humpph.

Ah, but it is sunny.