Brown, Science, and the Fruits of Curiosity

May 21, 2009

The Royal Society is running an inquiry called “The Fruits of Curiosity : science, innovation, and future sources of wealth”. They are calling for views : see this flyer. You can respond directly, but as usual the IOP is collating a response. I don’t know if the RAS is organising anything.

Disturbingly, the distributed file is called “Fruits Call for Views”. There’s a joke somewhere in there about science and the pink pound or something like that, but I can’t quite crystallise it. Hey Ho.

But seriously folks : there are some encouraging words in this flyer. It says

The Royal Society is keen to move beyond outdated dichotomies between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ research, towards a richer understanding of how a vibrant and diverse research base creates value in many different ways; through the supply of skilled individuals; through contributions to wealth creation and quality of life; or through simply discovering more about the world we live in.

Some of that is a bit warm and mushy, but it also suggests an opportunity to try to make the case that even apparently pure science makes wealth in the long term – what good ole PPARC used to call “strategic investment”. So go to it and have your say. By June 5th.

But the really interesting thing is that the flyer refers to a very significant speech by the Prime Minister which I hadn’t been aware of – the Romanes Lecture, in Oxford, Feb 27th. The transcript is on the number ten website.

Read it.

It is an articulate, coherent, and right-minded speech. It is very careful to include pure science, mentions Tim Berners Lee twice, and boasts about the British discovery of extrasolar planets. There are some excellent quotes. How about this :

But at this defining moment in the modern-day history of the British economy, is it not time to reconsider how to refocus our intellectual resources to reflect better the goals of our society. And to move away from an economy centred so heavily on financial services – and on finding ever more arcane ways to price complex derivatives – to one that is broader-based with a new focus on science and innovation.

Thats not just the usual cheap purple stuff. It’s pretty damned concrete. Or how about this :

…today the UK is second in the world only to America on the majority of leading scientific indicators and our science is the most productive and efficient in the G8. And I believe a vital ingredient of our success is that UK scientists remain amongst the most outward looking and globally connected. With just 1 per cent of the world’s population, the UK undertakes five per cent of the world’s science and produces nine per cent of the world’s papers. And of the UK’s foreign-born adult population – around one-fifth are scientists, with over half of them originally from Asia – in particular from countries like China and India. This is where we are. The question now is how we build on this strength to make Britain the best country in the world in which to be a scientist in the months and years to come.

If there is a more worrying part its this :

This does not mean compromising on fundamental research. But it will, as John Denham has said, mean working with scientists and those funding research to both identify potential priorities and then ensure that the research base works as much as possible to support them.

But thats not unreasonable. We just have to make sure that the Government understands different timescales of return on investment. But as I already mentioned, Tim Berners Lee is mentioned twice – so they know the point. One more quote :

So we will invest more than at any time in our country’s history, to make the next decade a decade where British scientific genius can create the low carbon, high skill, digital economy that we need.

Of course, it is possible that GB is lying through his teeth and the money won’t turn up. But I don’t think so. (Yes I know he is doing the usual trick of announcing money that was already announced in the ten year investment framework thingy… but the question is precisely whether that promised investment holds up during the recession.) It is also possible that the plugs for pure science are just keeping us quiet while the axe falls. But again I don’t think so. Its up to us to make the case.

Bottom line. If Astronomy suffers, it won’t be because the upper reaches of the Government is composed of barbarians, or because they take a too simple minded view of science and technology. It will be because we haven’t made our pitch right.


Android Sky Voodoo

May 15, 2009

An ex-boss of mine used to describe any really good piece of science as “a New York Times result”. Now an ex-employee of mine has made it to the New York Times. Ex-AstroGridder John Taylor now works for Google, but in his 20% time knocked up a cool astronomical app – Google Sky Map for Android phones. If you point the phone in any direction, it shows you the correct piece of sky. If you type in an astronomical object to search for, it shows which way to turn. As the BA might say, JT is  just made of awesome !!!!! Oh Jeez. Did I really say that ? Shoot me.

The official promo video has some slightly chubby geezer explaining it.On the other hand, you could watch JT himself hamming it up and flirting in public.

Or you could do the same as me while I’ve been writing this : jump into the YouTube Time Machine to catch nine minutes of Hendrix on the Lulu show. Oh thats good. Once you get past the Whispering Bob Harris intro.

Herschel-Planck countdown

May 13, 2009

I am going to miss a party at ROE. John Davies  sent round an email reminding everyone that Planck and Herschel are ready for launch. There will be nibbles while everyone gawks at the live webcast projected onto a screen in the canteen.  I am really sorry to miss this.

You can follow progress at the Planck-Herschel web site, and also at Andrew Jaffe’s blog. The lucky swine is actually there. There are mission-blogs and twitters and all that now-usual stuff. Andrew Jaffe gives the links.

If you want to set your watches, launch is expected 14:12 UK time (BST) on Thursday. Unfortunately this is six am California time…

If you are looking for quick sexy results, look for Herschel rather than Planck.  Planck takes three months to get to L2, then scans for 14 months, then analyses stuff for another year.. there will be not a peep until summer 2011. Herschel however is a regular observatory so stuff will get out much more quickly.

Uncomputable Insight

May 11, 2009

My Turing Test post turned out more interesting than I expected. Playing iGod was fun, and just that; but Steve’s link to a musical Turing Test really surprised me. Looks like speech is more quintessentially human than music … this is a challenge to those who see Mozart as a higher art form than Metal. Bach may be easier to fake than Beatle’s lyrics.

Meanwhile I finally finished “The Emperor’s New Mind”. As various folk said, here and privately, although its a fantastic overview of various parts of science, the “consciousness as quantum gravity” line does not end up being convincing. However .. the basic idea that human minds do something uncomputable is intriguing. Its closely linked to an issue that bugs me about mysticism, and especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

There are some aspects of Zen/Tao that fit well with the scientific outlook. Mysticism is not misty and vague, but rigorously insistent on the physical world, as opposed to the mental constructs we mistake for the world. (Including the fairy tales the West calls “religion”.) A classic Zen lesson is to hold up a book and ask the pupil what it is. “A book” says the pupil. “No” says the Master, “book is a noise.”. He plants it firmly in the pupil’s hand. “This is what this is”.

Anyway, what Zen and Science have in common is the belief that there is a real concrete world, and that there is a route to knowledge of the world. In both cases we carefully observe the physical world. But beyond this the (official) methods of Science and Zen diverge. In Science the route to truth is a kind of loop around guessing, testing, and refining, together with eternal scepticism. In Zen, there is first a kind of Brechtian alienation, to shock the mind out of false assumptions; but this goes with a belief that once you do that deconstruction, you already know the answer. You meditate on the flower until “The Flower” fades from your mind and your eyes see … the real flower.

Hopefully you get the link back to Penrose. Zen says that you can know the truth all-at-once, that the mind can do this. Science ..or at least textbook scientific philosophy – says you can’t. But of course many scientists also place great stock on insight, intuition, creativity etc. And push a little harder and scientists split into positivists (its meaningless to ask about essential truth; you can only know what works) and Platonists (we may be wrong at any stage, but our aim is to describe reality).

Can we know the world, or is our knowledge ever provisional ?

Dark Matter Damping

May 8, 2009

There is an interesting discussion over at Sarah’s blog, about astronomers being driven by ambition and greed just like everybody else. I remember this concept shocking Donald Pettie, the ex Chief Engineer at ROE, who moved there from Ferranti back in the eighties. He thought academics would be gentle, polite people. In some ways this was true, but he told me that he soon learned that the average astronomer would be prepared to sell his grandmother for an extra night on a big telescope.

There was something of an unseemly stampede last year when the ATIC results were announced – a claim of a hump in the cosmic ray electron energy spectrum, that could be a feature caused by the decay of dark matter particles. Gold !!!!!!! At a conference where the pre-publication results were presented, someone apparently photographed the screen, measured the points, and rushed a paper out. Of course this was only one of a gazillion papers with different interpretations. But now Fermi has made this all seem a bit daft : a paper just out in Phys Rev Lett has made an absolutely exquisite measurement of the CR energy spectrum from ten to a thousand GeV, which slides neatly underneath the ATIC data. Bump not there. See below.

Cosmic Ray electron energy spectrum measured by Fermi satellite

Cosmic Ray electron energy spectrum measured by Fermi satellite

Well this result has already caused a splash in the popular press and astroblogs (here is Sean Carrol’s take), but I had it in mind because I just attended a SLAC seminar explaining the result, given by Luca Patronico. The particle physicists are still seeing the glitter of gold in the river; the beautiful Fermi data disagree not only with the ATIC hump, but also with the “conventional diffusive model” … there are already papers out on ArXiv with revised DM fits…

However I am glad to report that the astronomers in the audience were somewhat saner. Not only is it possible that nearby pulsars could produce this “excess”,  at least one older wiser head said “errr… you aren’t taking that conventional diffusive model too seriously are you ? We don’t really understand the transport of cosmic rays through the ISM in that level of detail. Its kinda tricky. I can give you any curve you want”.

Maybe its relevant that the person who said this is already mature and respected … no need to grab at every chance of fame….