GB review : deadline approaches

July 27, 2009

Like many others, I got an email this week with a link to notes from the Ground Based review Town Meeting. You can find this linked at the official GBFR page.  There is nothing very unexpected from that debate, but Michael Rowan-Robinson stressed that we should all pitch in. At the time of the town meeting, there were 95 responses. To make the powers that be pay attention, MRR says we need at least 400, similar to the number that responded to the Ward panel. I know some of you may be thinking “what difference does it make ?” but unless there is a large response, there will be every justification for thinking that ground based facilities don’t matter very much. So get your response in !

The panel have also made it clear that they can accept unsolicited papers, as long as these are within two pages. General rants won’t help at all, but if you have a specific proposal, make sure its known.

MRR also noted that somehow we have to make our economic impact case. In various places, senior STFC folk have made it clear that “the case for space” is made, and indeed there has been a fair amount of PR recently about space and the UK economy and the new Harwell ESA centre, and indeed a consultation has been launched. It seems a bit rough to split off “astronomy in space” from other astronomy, as astronomy overall could have made a good economic impact case. Note however that most of the space industry is not about astronomy, so if space-based astronomy gets bundled up, thats good. But the lesson is that we can’t allow “astronomy on the ground” to be forced into an unfunable ghetto. Must be some trick here we haven’t thought of.

Gnuplot calculator

July 27, 2009

A few weeks back I wrote a post on calculators, expressing my desire for something that was more than a push-button emulator, and less than a full programming language. Something where you just have a window  where you can type 2.3*Msun*c**2, define short expressions for re-use, etc. Python seems to be the obvious thing but it has some annoying quirks; I also recommended Plaincalc. The comment stream was fascinating and very educational, with pointers to Wolfram Alpha, the Statusbar calculator for Firefox, and iCosmo, as well as some Python tutorial from Ross C.

I have been thinking about a similar post on graph plotters. While playing with these, I suddenly realised that the plotting package I use most often, gnuplot, does exactly whats needed ! Doh ! You can do calculations – eg print 18.3 * 27.6. You can define and use variables – eg a=pi/6, b=18.3, and then c=b**2*sin(1.3*a).  You can define and use single expression functions – e.g. f1(a,b,x)=a*x**2+b*sin(x)/x;  then with a and b already set you can calculate g=f1(a,b,2.3)/f1(a,b,3.2). Finally of course you can plot f1(a,b,x) – gnuplot assumes x is the variable and other variables are parameters. Then you can change the values of a and b and replot.

So now I have a file of physics and astro constants which is loaded by my .gnuplot initialisation file, so I can type 2.3*Msun*c**2. Next up, some standard functions, eg RBB(nu,T) = (2.*pi/c**2) * nu**3  / (exp(h*nu/(k*T)) – 1.).

So gnuplot is now my standard calculator, rather than Python interactive mode. The Python fans will now tell me that there is a Python version of gnuplot. Indeedy… but thats straying into the graph plotter shoot-out territory…. Watch this space.

Guest post : Wright brothers or Wrong brothers ?

July 21, 2009

I am now back in the UK but decompressing… Here is a timely Apollo-11 type guest post from old chum Martin Elvis.

It was 40 years ago today when Apollo 11 touched down on the Moon. I stayed up till 4am, in England, desperately trying to stay awake on the sofa to see the first steps. I just made it, and will never forget it.

Back then, as so many people have been commenting just now, it seemed that the Apollo program was just the first stage in an endless adventure of exploration. Surely I’d get to fly in space, others might get to Mars. It was all about to happen. After all, this was like the Wright Brothers showing that heavier than air powered flight was possible in 1903 . 40 years after that we had already had the Battle of Britain, with hundreds of bombers and fighters deciding the fate of Europe; commercial air service was well established (if still slow, vomit-inducing and quite dangerous). Where are the hundreds of spaceships now?

But were the Wright brothers the wrong brothers? Should we have been thinking of the Montgolfier brothers, who worked 120 years earlier, instead? They were the ones who showed that human flight was possible in 1783 . Forty years after that was no golden age of flight. That was because the hot air balloons used by the Montgolfier brothers, like the competing hydrogen balloons developed at the same time, were not a practical technology for useful flight. Pioneering trips, e.g. across the English Channel were made within a few years but, being at the mercy of the winds, these trips had no major follow-ons. They were used for military observations, but not much else.

Perhaps Apollo too showed that human flight – in space this time – was possible but didn’t have the right technology to make it useful. After the Montgolfier brothers, it was 60 years before significant work on heavier than air flight began (with George Cayley’s gliders), and a full 120 years before the confluence of gliders and the internal combustion engine made powered flight possible.

What technology are we waiting for? Do we need to know how to build carbon nanotube cables so we can build a space elevator, which is being actively pursued ? If that’s the case, we may have another long wait on our hands. Or do we need far bigger and better ion drive engines to save on the huge fuel mass that conventional rockets need, so we can go to Mars and other distant destinations quickly? That’s ‘just’ a matter of scale. Or has computer control and computer aided design come along far enough that cheap rockets can already be built, as SpaceX and Virgin Galactic believe? In which case, all we need is a reason to do it. Tourism in space may be it. Mining the asteroids may be it. But whatever the killer app for space is, it will have to make a profit, and probably an enormous profit, to kick things off like the Wright brothers.


July 15, 2009


Big Sky Journal

July 12, 2009

Travel notes squeezed out somewhere between internetless camp sites…

Aspen. Snuck out early to avoid the Aspen City Departure Tax on those not rich enough to fit in properly. Leadville. Coo. Nineteenth century mining town on the Roof of the World. Kinda Tibet with spurs. Somebody ought to make a movie here about gay cowboys who are too cold to have sex. Drake. Put tent up with almost negligible amount of intrafamilial bloodshed. Sausages and marshmallows for tea of course. Great Divide Basin. Wyoming is BIG. Endless miles of rolling hills with nothing but sagebrush and pronghorn. Re-assuring clatter of kids on their DS consoles ignoring the scenery. Laramie. Hang on. Aren’t there some astronomers round here someplace, with an IR telescope ? Fambly not interested. Apparently there are “astronomers everywhere”. Rawlins. Toured Old State Pen. Absolutely gruesome. Highlight is a rusting gas chamber. They let you sit inside and shut the door. Apparently after each “use” the seals were changed and it was tested on a pig. Don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Dubois. Coffee twenty five cents. Take that Aspen ! Grand Tetons National Park. Surely these mountains were drawn by an eight year old ? Or taken out of a catalogue of Perfect Pointy Mountains ? Bought “organic beer” called “Grand Tetons blonde au naturale”. Doesn’t this mean Big Tits Naked Blonde ? America is a very strange place. Yellowstone. Hundreds of steaming vents and bison warming their butts on same. Saw Old Faithful of course. Mused on non-linear feedback making quasi-periodic phenomena. The way you do. Has anyone made a model that works equally well for Geysers and Dwarf Novae ? Jackson. First motel for five days. Kids frantically recharging thirty eight different electronic devices and apologising to all their Facebook chums.

Time to head back to Frisco. Step on the gas and wipe that tear away.

The Lab

July 3, 2009

Browsing the STFC website the other day, the way you do, I came across the section labelled “Our History“. The most striking thing is that it looks much more like a history of CLRC and its antecedents than a history of PPARC and its antecedents. Observatory Wars and the creation of the ATC ain’t even mentioned. History starts in 1920, not 1675.

When you look back over the postwar history of British Science, the most striking thing is the steady growth of the Harwell campus. Harwell started as an RAF airfield in 1937, and was chosen as the site of the Atomic Energy Authority in 1946. Culham was started a few miles down the road at the same time. The Rutherford High Energy Lab grew out of the Harwell accelerator division in 1957.

Here is what happened to the rest of Britain’s non-military physical science labs :

Royal Greenwich Observatory
founded 1675;  closed 1999
Royal Observatory Edinburgh
founded 1820; merged with RAL 2007; site still open
Appleton Lab (Slough)
founded 1920; merged with RAL 1979, site closed
Atlas Lab (on Harwell site)
founded 1964; merged with RAL 1975
founded 1962; merged with RAL 1994; site still open … just
founded 1967;  taken over by RAL ?? (can’t find date)

I think you get the point. Don’t get confused by all the name changes. The massive thing at Harwell is always there, and has gradually taken responsibility for everything, usually closing the separate site after a polite pause. The merger with PPARC meant taking over observatories in Hawaii and La Palma of course, as well as the power to issue a large fraction of University research grants, and the responsibility for our international subscriptions.

Now, I may be paranoid but I ain’t stupid. Maybe the growth of The Lab is a good thing. RAL is a presence on the world stage. If the USA can afford a handful of world class labs then we can probably afford one. And many of my condensed matter and particle physics chums are all in favour. RAL either provides the facilities they need to do their research (Diamond, ISIS, CLF) or provides the technical resources they can work with to make their contributions to CERN.  This is the same logic as the ATC but twenty times bigger.

So whats the problem ? Lets just be more straightforward. RAL has taken over astronomy, and why not ? Its a top class lab.

[Cue RAL staff to grumble about being run from Swindon ….]