Excellence, Impact, and All That Jazz

April 29, 2009

Like several hundred others, I received an email last week from STFC explaining that from now on my grant proposals have to include an “impact plan”, i.e. we have to impress with our impact on the economy. (Read about it here.)  Along with the renewed gloom and doom about STFC finances, people seem to be seeing this as another sign that the barbarians are at the gates. I don’t see it that way; but there is cause for concern. Lets take this in three steps : why we should whinge, why we should help, and why we should be worried.

Why we should whinge : For as long as I can remember, British Industry has been (on average) second rate, and British Science has been (on average) world class, and often world beating. Whats more, the qualities that characterise our academic sector are just those you want in industry – we are competitive, ambitious, innovative, and we work hard. However, over the same period of history, Government has consistently concluded that we are the problem – the economy is stodgy because academic science is too pure, and this must change. Wuh ? Why are they wasting time leaning on us when the problem is elsewhere ?  It seems perverse. Whip the guys who are good at their jobs ????

Why we should help : Well, ok, the Government only has so many levers, so of course they are going to lean on us. And clearly the combined academic-industrial complex is not as porous as in the US; there is a problem somewhere. Furthermore, why should Government spend all that money on science unless it helps the economy ? If we make cultural “good of mankind” kind of arguments, we can expect the same budget as the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Of course we know that in much of science our economic impact is long-delayed and indirect, and we hope Government somehow takes this into account – but how do you do that ? You can’t blame them for wanting to see some evidence. If you read the Excellence with Impact report, this is mostly what its about : collecting evidence.  Likewise the new additions to grant proposals. This isn’t really about university scientists proving their impact. Its about Research Councils demonstrating to the Treasury that the money they have been given has made a difference. So we need to help our Research Council colleagues in that game. Sorry, transparency exercise.  Note that there is now a consultation on RCUK’s Knowledge Transfer schemes – see here and here.

Why we should worry : The depressing thing about the Excellence with Impact report is not some kind of brute message about only funding applied research : its that astronomy and particle physics have made little impact on the impact agenda. For goodness sake, there is a half-page splash about the Centre for Surrealism which has “generated economic impact of at least 1M” and has “restored the credibility of surrealism research”. There are boxes on PPARC detectors for medical imaging, and the careers of PPARC students, but somehow they are worded in a damp squib kind of way. Where is “World Wide Web utterly transformed our society” ???!!!!??? I just have the horrible feeling we simply lost a classic inter-departmental battle.

We need to score some Treasury goals. And we need a bold simple ticket. Complex programmes don’t sell. You need 100M size baubles you can sell over a cup of coffee – the e-Science programme, joining ESO, etc. I guess at the last CSR, STFC’s ticket was “Space ! The next frontier” which is why we have MoonLite and the RAL ESA Space Centre. They should at least be given credit for trying. Of course you have to watch the pea under the cups when you play that game…

Anyway. When faced with gloopy stuff about “impact” and “space” its maybe a mistake to back away with pegs on our noses; we should read the game and play with gusto. Its not too late to win.

Help fund leukaemia research

April 24, 2009

You may remember that before Christmas, Oxford astronomers were selling sky survey plates to help raise money to help save Alexander Thatte, the child of two of their colleagues. Alexander lost his battle in early January. His parents have now decided how they want his life commemorated. They have set up a fund within the University of Oxford that aims to support a 3 year studentship (leading to a DPhil) in research into the causes of childhood leukaemia. If they raise enough money this year, the first studentship could be advertised for the next PhD round.

If you want to contribute, here is the link :


An even better cause than saving our telescopes !

Telescope Tensions

April 20, 2009

I may be whingeing about the weather, but I sure ain’t whingeing about UKIRT. Its a world beating facility, and runs more smoothly than other telescope I know. This wasn’t the case when I first started using UKIRT … shows you what you can do with thirty years to nail this stuff down. Well… dedicated and talented staff kinda help too 🙂

In last year’s crisis, UKIRT was under threat. Luckily, the community response was very impressive. As a result, UKIRT is guaranteed at the very least to finish UKIDSS. Now the feeling of crisis looms again. As Peter C has described, STFC’s problems have deepened because of exchange rate problems, and we are all waiting for the budget with our breath held.

Meanwhile, rumours abound of a review of ground-based facilities by STFC. (OK I know thats only one rumour, but Tom Shanks can abound all by himself I reckon.) This should be able to dovetail nicely with the US decadal survey, as discussed in an earlier post. It needs to report well before November, as thats when the crucial Gemini Board meeting is … However, so far there seems to be no sign of terms of reference appearing on the STFC web site. By the way, isn’t it a very pretty and professional looking web site ?

The GB review may be an opportunity to review priorities for future things, but of course everybody is assuming its a game of musical chairs. Oh look ! There’s a news item about Merlin being a great success ! Oh and a lovely new brown dwarf result from UKIDSS, folllowed up by observations on Gemini !!

Oh dear. Is this going to get a tad tense over the coming months ?

Big Island Bloggers

April 19, 2009

The skies are clearing on Mauna Kea … I am getting some good data on UKIDSS at last. While those twenty minute queued observations are trundling along, I have been catching up on local blogs. There are quite a few blogs on the Big Island, but I have found three astro blogs. The first is A Pacific View which is already in my More Astro Blog Links page. The second is A Darker View .  The third  is Adventures in a lightroom . His pseudonym is Mirmilant, but I think this is another UKIRT staffer, Antonio Chrysostomou. All of these blogs have great photos, but Mirmilant’s are absolutely stunning, and he has another web site with a gallery of photos. Check it out. Jeez, I wish I could do that.

Is there something in the Hawaiian water that turns people into photographers ?

I failed the Turing Test

April 18, 2009

I am at fourteen thousand feet and trying to read “The Emperor’s New Mind” by Roger Penrose. (Its cloudy at UKIRT). Perhaps it would have been wiser to try it at sea level at a more normal neural firing rate.

So early on there is all this stuff about the Turing Test. Apparently Turing’s original paper said that computers would pass 30% of Turing tests by the year 2000. Now I love my Macbook but it ain’t that good. So chalk that up with personal jet packs on the list of futurology failures.

You know the idea of course. A computer and a real person are hidden away in different rooms and a second real person asks both of them questions, by plain text only. If the interrogator can’t tell which one is the real person, then the computer has passed the Turing Test.

So it occurred to me that the weakness in this is that it depends on the hidden human. I definitely have some cousins who would fail the Turing Test. Or let a dumb computer slip through too easily. Anyhoo, mustn’t be arrogant. At fourteen thousand feet I think I will fail too.

Imaginary Worlds

April 13, 2009

Talking of things that don’t exist … I have been reading a fascinating book by Paul Nahin called “An Imaginary Tale : the story of the square root of minus one“. Somebody somewhere didn’t want me to read this book. I bought it in December for a trip back to the UK. I lost it, but it turned up in the kitchen of the hotel I was staying in. The waitress who returned it stared at all the maths and said “Is it in Chinese ?”. Really. Then, a week later, just as I was reaching  chapter four, I turned a page … and it was blank. Every alternate page was blank for the next sixty four. I felt like I was inside a Borges story. It all accentuated the feeling of unearthing arcane knowledge. Back in California I returned the book to a puzzled bookstore, and eventually got a new copy back. It then sat on my shelf for a few months until I re-discovered it. I am happy to report it was worth the wait. Lots of fun.

It took hundreds of years for i to be accepted. The first key step was seeing imaginary numbers appear as an intermediate step in the solutions of cubics, where the final solution is perfectly real – so the appearance of imaginary numbers is not simply the sign of a non-physical situation. The second key step was the invention of a way to visualise complex numbers a+ib as points in a 2D plane – the Argand diagram, actually first invented by Wessel. This made complex numbers feel real, but also, especially together with the complex exponential form, made a whole bunch of calculations much quicker. Since that time, complex numbers have been an indispensable part of the weaponry of mathematicians, physicists, and engineers, and people love using them to make things somehow seem simpler. A beautiful example from the early twentieth century is the use of “imaginary time” in relativity.

In ordinary space, the interval between two points, ds2=dx2+dy2+dz2 is conserved if you transform to a different co-ordinate system. In spacetime, the quantity that is conserved is the distinctly less obvious expression ds2=-c2dt2+dx2+dy2+dz2. But you can recover the nice spacelike expression if you replace time with imaginary time, t’=ict.

But even in the twentieth century some people were uncomfortable with this sort of thing. Nahin has a beautiful quote from a physicist criticising  Einstein and Minkowski’s use of imaginary numbers this way :

The square root of minus one has a legitimate application in pure mathematics, where it forms part of various ingenious devices for handling otherwise intractable situations. It has also a limited value in mathematical physics … as an essential cog in a mathematical device. In these legitimate cases, having done its work it retires gracefully from the scene… The criterion for distinguishing sense from nonsense has been lost; our minds are ready to tolerate anything if it comes from a man of repute and is accompanied by an array of symbols in Clarendon type.

This distinction between reality and mathemical convenience is a worrying one. The neat thing about i is that even though it doesn’t exist, you can manipulate it using the ordinary rules of arithmetic and get the right answer. Hamilton was unfcomfortable with this, and painfully reproduced the advantages of complex numbers in a more acceptable way  by defining algebraic couples (a,b) and defining the product of two couples as (a,b)(c,d)=(ac-bd,bc-ad).  Many years before, mathematicians were even uncomfortable with the idea of a negative number; in a similar manner you can of course carefully define operational rules so such things never appear.. but, hey, relax, it works !

So is mathematics invented or discovered ? Of course the same issue arises for physical theory. Do our concepts and theories describe a true reality that we have unearthed – or they simply calculating devices, that enable us to predict measured quantities ? Our nervousness about this problem depends critically on distance from sensory experience. You have to be pretty much of a pedant to deny the existence of magnetic fields. Wave those two magnets near each other and you can feel it.  Electrons and protons are weird but pretty safe. You can’t feel the effect on your muscles, but you can see the needle deflect each time an electron at a time hits the cathode in your lab. Quarks hover around the border. Their presence seems clear in that plot you read in the  consortium paper, from data collected from  a huge machine over many years and carefully filtered. You know that was all rigorously done, but you can’t help feeling maybe if you were smart enough there could be a different set of concepts and calculations that would produce pretty much the same curve. Then finally we reach string theory, where some folk are messianic, and others are openly sceptical.

At the end of the day, most scientists are pragmatic. We only worry about the metaphysics when the facts aren’t in. One good hard prediction is all we need …

Crucifixion, Liberation, and the Depression

April 10, 2009

Good Friday. Christians everywhere are commemorating the execution of an ancient Middle Eastern sect leader by an imperial power. History is just so strange. I love wandering into old churches. Often the weirdest part of the experience is coming across a painted effigy of Christ, covered with blood, perforated with gaping wounds, and exuding a kind of patient agony. Its certainly tempting to conclude that an iconography of such sadism is the sign of some disease gripping the mind.

However, there is an interesting link here with more thoughtful world views, such as Buddhism. The link is the liberation from suffering. Both Christianity and Buddhism start from the assumption that the default state of humanity is one of suffering and struggle – the suffering of poverty and starvation, the struggle to protect your family against war and theft, the fear of illness and death, the pain of loss. As I understand it, Christ suffers for us; we get swallowed up in his love, and he swallows up our pain and suffering. In Buddhism, the point is to somehow see past these things – there is no self no suffer, and suffering is caused by grasping too hard at the world. Buddhism is not primarily a set of beliefs, but rather a path of liberation. (For the sake of argument, please ignore the bizarre magical side of Tibetan Buddhism…)

It always seemed to me that Buddhism ought to be a more natural religion for America than Christianity. In Christianity, we are rescued by a magical being in whom we must trust. In Buddhism, we must rescue ourselves, by insight.

Of course in the modern oil rich affluent world, there is simply much less suffering. (Although it doesn’t look that way in Gaza or Mumbai..) I have always assumed that increasing affluence was the reason why religion is gradually decaying, at least in Europe. But if capitalism collapses around us, watch out for millions of suffering people looking for ways to escape from misery..

Send three and fourpence

April 8, 2009

Reality slowly catches up with fantasy. OK, so we don’t have the Transmat machine yet, but we do have flip-open personal communicators. And now we have Google Translator . A – maze – ing. As soon as my kids showed me this, I thought of a joke I first heard Way Back in the 1960s*

The army top brass are visiting a secret military installation, and are shown the world’s most powerful computer, capable of translating between any language and any other. A sceptical general asks the operator to translate “out of sight, out of mind” into Chinese. Of course the result shown on the teletype is gibberish to everybody present. The general tells the operator to input the Chinese version and ask for English. Back comes the answer, “Invisible Idiot”. General returns to Whitehall and cancels project.

It was obvious what I had to do next. Pop “Out of sight, out of mind” into Google Translator, cut and paste the resulting characters, and swing her into reverse. Back came “Disappeared in the sight of bear in mind”.  I put this English phrase back in, and … three loops later I had “Bearing in mind the missing eye”. This phrase was then stable in both English and Chinese.

So now I am hooked on a new silly game. Type in a phrase or sentence, and make a translation chain more or less at random from Croatian to Arabic to Hindi to Hebrew to Spanish etc, every so often dropping out of hyperspace back into English to see where we have gotten to. Its a bit like playing Conway’s Game of Life. Some patterns are immediately stable, some meander and then find a stable equilibrium. I haven’t found any oscillating patterns yet.

Here are some of my favourites :

“And God said, let there be light” became “God said : this is obvious” and then “He said that this is a very specific”.

“Some like it hot” ended up as “However, there are some important issues” after nine steps.

“Mad dogs and englishmen go out in the midday sun” ended up as “Also, the United Kingdom” after many steps, including “Today, the United Kingdom and the mad dog of the examination”.

“Too many cooks spoil the broth” became “Overdone stock loss”

“Ten thin tin men” became  “Thin steel”

and perhaps the strangest

“Cleanliness is next to godliness” quickly became “Dust coming besimtaris”.

Give it a go.

* Special No-Prizes for spotting the song quote, and decoding the post title.

RAE games

April 6, 2009

These are grim times for Welsh astronomy. The cancellation of Clover follows on from a surprisingly bad RAE result for Cardiff. Peter Coles has analysed the RAE results several times over. In this first post, he listed straight weighted mean scores (in which Cardiff came 35th). In a second post, he introduced “research power”, meaning volume times score, which brought Cardiff up to 22nd. Then on January 29th, when HEFCE announced its funding algorithm (7,3,1,0 for buckets 4,3,2,1 respectively) he gave another league table showing expected relative funding, with Cardiff now 27th. (Note however that the Welsh and Scottish funding councils have not yet announced their funding algorithms…)

Last week the RAE published the sub-profiles on which the final profiles were based – i.e. we now have separate profiles for research outputs, for environment, and for esteem. I downloaded the UOA19 (Physics) table, scraped the numbers, and played plotting games with Topcat. To help you play your own games I am attaching a .doc file which is really a CSV file in disguise … Unfortunately WordPress won’t let me upload a VOTable (its XML) or even a plain .txt file, but it does allow .doc files. You can convert the .doc file into plain text, and then Topcat or Excel will read it in.

So here is one interesting thing that jumped out at me – environment scores seem to have been quite crucial. The figure displayed here shows the research outputs score (bue dots) and the environment score (red dots) plotted in turn against the overall score. Compared to research outputs, environment shows a larger range, a larger dispersion, and gradient which is distinctly larger than unity. The red dot way off the correlation is Loughborough – environment score 1.1 even though it scored 2.66 on research outputs. On overall score, Loughborough came 32nd. If its score had been as good as its outputs score it would have been 14th. Cardiff was actually slightly rescued by its environment score; it scored outputs=2.22 and environment=2.74. (Edinburgh had a fairly consistent 2.8 and 3.0).

Results from RAE

It wouldn’t be wise to overinterpret individual scores. But it does look like the panel had more marked opinions about the quality of research environment, or perhaps allowed themselves bolder judgements. Any other patterns emerging ? Read the rest of this entry »

Guest post : Over for Clover

April 1, 2009

You may have heard rumours that the Clover experiment has been cancelled, and indeed Peter C has just written about it. My colleague Alan Heavens had some observations on this turn of events, so I invited him to write about it. Here is his piece :

A few days ago STFC cancelled the Clover project – a casualty of the financial crisis in the council, and perhaps not the last.  What should we make of this?

First, some background. Clover was a project to detect B-mode polarisation in the Cosmic Microwave Background, would have detected the gravitational lensing effect of intervening structure on the CMB E-mode polarisation, but much more excitingly it was designed to seek evidence for inflation, which in the standard cosmological model is assumed to have driven the expansion soon after the Big Bang.  This is noble and potentially Nobel science.

Clover’s cancellation raises questions about which projects the UK should be funding, especially in lean times.  STFC’s stance on this at the beginning of the crisis was set out very persuasively by John Womersley in a talk in Edinburgh and elsewhere – the UK should be pursuing projects of high scientific importance, with big international impact, and with UK leadership.   The message was clear – we should do fewer, more important things, and lead them.  Absolutely right, I thought – this is what our research councils should be saying.

Clover ticks all these boxes – it was purely a UK project; a positive finding would have been of colossal scientific importance, and the impact would have been enormous.   So what went wrong?  The bare answer is that the costs went up, and STFC Council reconsidered it, and cut it.  The project certainly faced challenges, in detector technology, and in the team moving from two institutes to four, but the project was well advanced.  Unlike the VSA, where an opportunity to fund a seminal experiment well in advance of competition was missed, Clover had been funded early and boldly.  The delays meant that it might not have been the first to an accurate detection, as other experiments were catching up, but it still might have won the race. The fear of competition can be damaging; other projects are not immune to delays and difficulties and one might miss an opportunity.  A salutary lesson comes from 2dF and SDSS: had PPARC taken the same view of 2dF in the face of the published schedule of SDSS, the important scientific results made by 2dF in large-scale structure would have been lost to the USA.

As always the case when finance is the issue, the decision is a matter of scientific judgement and strategic priority.  On finance, it would be interesting to know if a minority partner was sought.   On scientific priority, then the advisory panels must be allowed to advise and the Science Council allowed to decide, but it would be interesting to know what advice informed the decision.

The Clover shortfall is, incidentally, the same figure as is rumoured on this blog to have been allocated to MoonLITE.

Alan Heavens