Don’t panic yet …

September 30, 2009

The advisory panels have done their thing and reported to PPAN. The report of the Far Universe Advisory Panel can be found at this link, and that of the Near Universe etc can be found here. Both panels are offering one last chance to comment – FUAP has a deadline of Oct 8th, and NUAP will be telling us soon.

The reports have some interesting differences. The FUAP report has a very long term feel to it, concentrating on Big Questions and the “Crown Jewels”, meaning JWST, ALMA, ELT, and SKA, with barely a mention of the role of existing facilities. The NUAP report is more nitty gritty, with a mapping of ongoing programmes onto current facilities, as well as big future ones. I was pleased to see that both reports include a reminder that an infrastructure for HPC, data processing, and data management, including “internet based solutions” is also very important.

So read those, and gird your loins for Friday, as we expect the first draft of the report by the Ground Based Facilities Review. But we can afford anything new ?

Yesterday I heard from my University admin that a letter had been sent by STFC to all VCs/Principals explaining that as a necessary caution all new grants would be announced with a closing date of October 2010. Gulp. Rumour has it that the new STFC chair, Michael Sterling has decided that the doors are locked until this mess is sorted out. STFC are already on the case. Committee attendees no longer get biscuits.

OK. Ready ? Panic …. now.

Unappealing offer

September 25, 2009

Just checked the spam folder. Some kind souls have offered me “free adult thumbnails”. Crikey. Is this teeny-weeny porn, or some kind of perionychial fetish ?

Astronomical Nightmares

September 17, 2009

This afternoon I bumped into Ross McLure in the corridor. I congratulated him on his heroic achievement (with Jim Dunlop and Michele Cirasuolo and other chums) getting out a paper based on the new WFCAM3 observations of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field in just a few days, including claims of several galaxies past redshift seven. Ross said it was indeed a tad exhausting, and was the most stressful thing he’d done since submitting his thesis.

This sent me into anecdote mode. Many moons ago for my thesis in Leicester, I had spent days on end staring at hundreds of “lines of position” plots for Ariel V X-ray sources. One night I dreamt I was an error box, and couldn’t find the X-ray source I was supposed to enclose. I woke up sweating.

Some while ago I told Jim Dunlop this story, and he immediately topped it with his own thesis-submission story. One has to bear in mind that Jim’s supervisor was John Peacock, who has a brain the size of six planets. This is a wondrous thing, but in those latter days, could only add to the stress. In Jim’s dream, he was printing out a copy of his thesis, when suddenly it stopped printing on paper and starting printing on fish. Jim says that his immediate thought was “oh no ! what will John think ???”

Any more ?

UKIRT and Star Wars

September 14, 2009

Todays lessons : (i) never understimate the public appeal of astronomy, and (ii) stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.

I am sitting in a fascinating but sentimental workshop : UKIRT at 30, a celebration of thirty years of ground-breaking infrared astronomy at the UK Infrared Telescope. It is pretty amazing how UKIRT got proposed as a very cheap and simple light bucket, but in fact has stayed ahead of the game in technical innovation and scientific impact at every step.

The classic era for some was the revolutionary application of infrared imaging arrays – the famous IRCAM. Ian MacLean’s description of the history had some interesting insights. He showed a blow-up of the first array in the lab at ROE, and there, etched along the bottom in tiny letters was the word “tankbreaker”. This is what you get when you inherit military technology …

Ian heard rumours of a group in a US university that had an IR arrray to play with and went to see them. They wouldn’t say who they got it from, but Ian convinced them to let who-ever-it-was know that ROE was interested in getting a working camera on a real working telescope. They did. This, we now know, was Al Hoffman at SBRC (now Raytheon). Al in fact convinced his management to start a new program of commercial array development specifically for astronomy. Apparently he skipped his boss and went straight to one of the VPs. Why ? Because he knew that guy was a keen amateur astronomer …

SBRC and UKIRT/ROE entered into a formal partnership. It is very unnusual for a US commercial corporation to enter such a partnership with a non-US non-commercial entity. This sounds like just the sort of Knowledge Transfer success that the powers-that-be are urging us to achieve today. But hang on – note which direction the Knowledge is Transferring…. Did we invent some great new technology, which industry gratefully devoured ? Don’t be silly. They were the dog, and we were the flea. Partnership is the word. As customers we helped them develop a new market.

Same story with Adapative Optics. Probably same story developing now with ginormous databases.

Cardiff Secrets*

September 9, 2009

I am in Cardiff for a meeting of the Herschel ATLAS consortium. ATLAS is a big open time key project – hundreds of square degrees to S(500 micron)=53 mJy. Matt Griffin gave a general Herschel update. He showed us some pictures which he stressed very heavily could not be discussed elsewhere, or he would have to kill us. And apparently there are other things that he cannot show us at all, otherwise Goran Pilbratt will have to kill him. But rest assured folks its all looking pretty damn groovy and hitting the specs. Two things that aren’t exactly a secret. First, although PACS and SPIRE are working pretty to much to perfection, HIFI is temporarily switched off while they figure out whats wrong. (It will soon get switched to backup electronics). Second, deep images are confusion limited. So ATLAS took the right decision doing a wide shallow survey :)

Then at lunch someone-who-shall-be-nameless said how much s/he was enjoying the comments on my blog, especially the recent ELT / ESO funding revelations, and mentioned that the SKA team had discussed whether to pitch in with SKA PR, and took an explicit decision to stay clear. So. Obviously. Anonymous contributions welcome.

Tonight we are trooping off to Cardiff Bay for dinner. As far as I can tell, the restaurant is pretty much right on top of The Rift. So if this is my last post, you’ll know why…

* In case you thought this title meant Walter had told me where the skeletons are, tough. We did converse but no beans were spilled. Do skeletons have beans ? (Please stop now, Ed..)


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