Mexican Warning

March 31, 2009

Back from Mexico and our landlady asked if we’d had a “nice, safe, time”.  Americans have a strange attititude to Mexico. Before we left we told many friends and colleagues we were off to Mexico. Nine out of ten said either “Why ?” or “Oh !! do be careful, its very dangerous.” One time out of ten, however, a strange gleam would appear in someone’s eye. These folks requested that an important message be passed onto other Americans :

“You may have heard rumours that Mexico is a pleasant and interesting place to visit. This is dangerous propaganda. It simply isn’t true that people are cheerful, friendly and helpful. Statements you may have heard about almost all the drug related violence occuring near the US border, and so being irrelevant to visiting 98% of Mexico are unhelpful, as is the claim that crime is rarer in most Mexican towns than in the US. The idea that Mexican food is tasty, nutritious and interesting is particularly bizarre. There is really hardly any scenery of note, especially considering the samey dullness of volcanoes, deserts, mountain forests, and steamy jungles. Somewhere in the distant past, there were apparently some exotic ancient civilisations in Mexico, but almost all traces of these have vanished. There are very few historical monuments worth visiting.  It has even been suggested that the network of buses is cleaner, faster, more reliable, and more extensive than any public transportation in the USA. Absurd. Some have even suggested that Mexicans like visitors because the ones who visit are those who have believed these bizarre rumours, whereas those who know the awful truth about Mexico do not of course go there. Lets keep it that way.”

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Shank’s Pony versus Decadal Supertanker

March 30, 2009

It looks like Tom Shanks is gearing up for the rumoured review of UK ground-based facilities. This is is what some of his cryptic allegories refer to. Meanwhile the US Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics in full swing. The community involvement is intense. Considerable numbers of people are involved in the various panels and sub-panels of course, but there are also multiple open submission requests – for white papers on science, on the state of the profession, on theory and computation, and for information on “activities” i.e. telescopes, missions, laboratories etc. As with the European Astronet Roadmap process, the idea was to debate the science first, and concrete facilities later.  The science white paper deadline already passed, and resulted in 334 submissions. These make fascinating reading, or at least the tiny fraction I have dipped into do so. The “State of the Profession” call was also intriguing, producing 69 submissions. Some of these are pleading for special areas of expenditure, like the ballooning program, or “Strategic Theory” but others cover a strange variety of topics, including the loss of physical contact with telescopes, open source software in astronomy (see Sarah’s post), and the energy consumption of astronomers. This last one, led by Brit ex-pat Phil Marshall, also has an associated wiki site, where you can sign up to be a supporter. The general conclusion is that we travel too much so we should have more virtual meetings. I am thinking of re-creating Aspen in Second Life and charging you all for coming to my Institute. What d’you think ? Bicycles free of course.

There are two calls open now – one for white papers on Technology Development, Computation, Theory, and Laboratory Astrophysics, and another for information on “activities”. The latter is a two stage process. At first anybody can submit anything; but then the panel will request more detail on some activities… This is where the blood will start to flow, as the tension rises on the big ticket items – TMT, SKA, LSST etc. So at the end of the day the process will be intensely political, but people have really tried to focus on the science questions first; and absolutely nobody has an excuse to say they weren’t asked, or its all a stitch up etc.

Its a very expensive process; directly in terms of panel members time and associated administration, and even more in terms of how many community brain-hours are used up, that could have been spent writing papers for the Astrophysical Journal.  Could the right answers be concluded much more efficiently with a few wise heads in a room ? This is the problem that STFC will face again….


Aztec Quasar Pilgrimage

March 24, 2009

Twice each year, at the equinox, the feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl returns to his home at the Great Pyramid of Cholula. I was there with my family to welcome him this Saturday, having travelled to INAOE in Mexico to give my UKIDSS/VO colloquium. Quetzalcoatl must be a shy chap. It seems it needs a few thousand people to encourage him home by singing, dancing, eating gorditas, drinking pulque, and jumping over fires wearing absurdly large head-dresses. At twilight, we climbed the ancient pyramid towards the Christian church planted on its top. Halfway we turned and looked back towards Popocatapetl, smoking in the middle distance. It is just so huge and dramatic. How can you not feel stirred ? The church was full of icons of Mary / Diana / Earth Mother, and several images of the Sacred Heart, which seemed gruesomely appropriate. These things are so powerful, I think it is a mistake to think of religion simply as ignorance. Rationality is an insight, a liberation, that battles against some of our wiring.

Back down among the festival tents, there were in fact many astronomers in attendance, showing the locals how to make paper models of the Moon and of Stereo A and B. I am glad to report these stalls were very popular. Almost as popular as the pulque.

This morning I walked into INAOE, in the nearby village of Tonantzintla. I walked past the old Schmidt telescope, part of the original 1940s observatory founded by Guillermo Haro. Like my visit to Byurakan almost two years ago, this was a kind of historical pilgrimage. Haro was I believe the first to use the idea of a Schmidt objective prism to search systematically for blue things. He found all sorts of fascinating things, including discovering the jet-like structures in forming stars now known as Herbig-Haro objects. But his lists of blue things included star forming galaxies, and blue “stars” which later turned out to be quasars. (Ton 202 is a favourite of mine, being one of the quasars where my colleague Makoto Kishimoto uncovered the Balmer edge expected from an accretion disc atmosphere, and the nu**1/3 SED in the infrared – see post here). Today Roberto Terlevich told me that Haro worked with Ambartsumian, and actually convinced Markarian to undertake his historic survey – at first Markarian wasn’t interested. Apparently Haro was eventually awarded the Lenin Prize.

It is so strange to think of those quasars sitting there, in a list in Haro’s office, all those years until somebody knew what they were. What mysteries are hidden today, unrecognised in an anonymous list on somebody’s laptop ?


More Transatlantic Incomprehension

March 19, 2009

Sporting metaphors are a big problem. At lunch the other day I met a chap who used to work in the White House some years back. “What did you do ?” we asked. “Ummm.. “, he replied, “I guess you’d call me a kind of utility infielder.”

Blank stares. “Well”, I said, “I guess when you have been in a sensitive position you have to play a straight bat”. More blank stares. The other folk at the table were from Switzerland and Germany and were grinning politely.

I got back and asked a colleague how things were going. There was a heavy sigh and he explained that it was one of those days when you were at fourth down with nine to go. Well what could I say ? Its goals that count, Gary.


Pi in the Sky

March 16, 2009

I was staring and dreaming eight thousand feet up, when a beeping noise interrupted my reverie. Hey Dad, said my twelve year old son from the seat next to me on the chair lift, Happy Pi Day ! It was 3/14/1:59. Ha, said me, I know all about Pi Day. It was on Tom’s Astronomy Blog already.

Son smirked. He was teasing me for being a dork, just because I happened to mention that when I was his age I passed the time by memorising Pi to a hundred places. But I am not even that good. A kid at his school managed five hundred and three. And all this pales into insignificance next to Michael Rowan-Robinson’s Stakhanovite achievement. When Michael was ill as a child, he memorised the entire book of log tables, and to this day uses his arcane knowledge for the Force of Good. Or was it for amusing parlour tricks ? One of those.

Ah. If only one still had the patience and the lesiure for such beautiful pointless labours.

Pardon the drivel. I’m plum tuckered after a long drive. Maybe by about Wednesday I will serve up a sharp analysis of the State of Science. If I can find time in my schedule.


American Language Traps

March 9, 2009

Apparently I embarassed my host this week. Old chum Martin Elvis, a regular on this blog, introduced me at the start of my colloquium at CfA, bringing out all sorts of biographical snippets. I thanked him for his fulsome introduction and everybody laughed awkwardly. Later Martin explained that although in the UK “fulsome” means “abundant and generous”, in the US it means “absurdly overdone”. Ooops.

The first time I went to the USA, experienced hands warned me of the language traps. “You will be puzzled”, they told me, “by the fact that you can see their pants, and that they wear their vests on top of their shirts.” More importantly, they explained, if I made a graphical error and wished to erase something, I must be most careful not to ask the secretary for a rubber. My intentions would be misunderstood.

This time around, my son got into trouble because he threw his textbook into the trash. Well the teacher said to put it in the bin, what was he supposed to do ?

Well.. I am sure there about eight thousand web page / blog entries discussing this kind of stuff, and I can’t even be bothered to look ’em up. But do feel free to chip in, and at least it does give me a chance to apologise to Martin.


Yo-Yo Ma makes us late for dinner

March 4, 2009

“Aaaaaggghhhhh”, said P-, “how I hate those humanities people ! I am so glad I did Physics !” What prompted this outburst was emerging from a three hour performance in a Harvard church, ravenously hungry and bad tempered. It was called “Witness” and billed as the contribution of the Harvard Humanities to this year’s celebration of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It sounded like it would be good – it featured Yo-Yo Ma, Toni Morrison, and the dancer Damian Woetzel. The trouble is it also featured a long sequence of Harvard Professors pontificating. For every three minutes of bliss with Yo-Yo you had to sit through seven minutes of somebody reading an essay in Hungarian, or blethering on about the “exigent materialities of our aspirational constructions”. Depressingly, even Toni Morrison was deathly dull. She read from her own work in a monotone, and added a twenty minute uninteresting reminiscence about the transcendent experience of watching slam poets perform in the Louvre. Morrison is a Saint of course, so even though she spoke at about eight words a minute, one felt obliged to appear captivated.

It struck me that as scientists in Universities, we are both the academics and the practitioners, whereas in the humanities this is two different things. There are those that create and those that interpret. The interpreters are very clever and reside in ancient and prestigious institutions like Harvard. They feel important, and act like they are needed to validate what creative artists do. The truth is different. Creation is crucial to our wellbeing; those best at it are almost magical beings, and are justifiably adored. Humanities Professors are needed to teach our children, thank you very much, but otherwise add nothing of value. They think they are a priesthood, but really they are just spongers, making a living out of somebody else’s talent. As they are genuinely clever but have nothing interesting to say, hot air expands to fill the vacuum.

Provocative enough ?