Canossa revisited : Science, State, and Religion

March 31, 2010

I expect you all saw @ProfBrianCox on @Wossy. Thats Twitterspeak for Brian Cox on the Jonathan Ross show . I think. New at this stuff. Anyway, it was j.good. Everybody loved the will-he won’t-he finger in the liquid Nitrogen thing. Rather more Dr Bunhead than Carl Sagan if you know what I mean, but hey that’s good. My favourite moment was a little more serious. Ross suddenly asked Cox whether he was atheist, religious, agnostic or what. Brian paused slightly and then stated that personally he was comfortable living with uncertainty, and that was what science gave you. Well, spot on, but of course he didn’t actually answer the question. Part of me thought this was chickening out, and part of me thought it was very wise. It didn’t rule out Einstein style cosmic pantheism, and didn’t criticise anybody’s personal choices, but left you to work out for yourself that religion is a crutch you don’t need. But do we need to take sides ? A year in the USA reminded me that millions of people believe that science is the enemy of religion; not because science is intrinsically evil, but because it is part of a secular state which limits their freedom to teach their children what they wish.

My Christmas reading included Millenium by Tom Holland. Set at a time when people were deeply religious and thought the world was about to end, the central story is about the battle for authority between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. The turning point was when the excommunicated Henry IV crawled to the castle at Canossa in 1077 to do penance. Pope Clement kept him waiting outside the gate, in his hair shirt, for several days before admitting him to an audience. This established papal supremacy. At least thats what Mr Holland told me.

I thought of this as the Catholic Church child abuse scandal kept rolling on. The jaw dropping thing is not that priests did those awful things, but that the Church felt it was above the law, and had no need to hand the guilty over to Caesar. For a while it looked like Pope Benedict would have his Canossa-in-reverse in Ireland, as the pressure grew for him to publicly grovel. But the result was still an expression of regret for the crimes committed by others, and sympathy for the pain felt by victims – not an apology for covering everything up.

Meanwhile it seems, the same US states that legislate for a requirement to teach religious scepticism concerning evolution, also wish to insist on scepticism concerning global warming. (See this NY Times article.) Why ? Does the Bible say that changes in climate are not anthropogenic ? Don’t think so. I think its because in Christian minds, science is at the core of a rational secular state which wishes to squash their culture and remove their freedom to believe. Even our academic humanist colleagues think there is an unhealthy bias towards the state funding of science.

Right now many physicists are tempted to see the State as a barbarian force intent on squeezing out the pursuit of truth and replacing it with the pursuit of gold, even making the production of gold the test of value for scientific activity. Well we all know the dangers, but its really only fine tuning. The religious zealots are right. We are at the heart of the military industrial complex.  Government knows the value of science. Since radar and the bomb, we get lots of money. You think thats because the goverment think we are fine men and women and deserve to have an undisturbed life of enquiry ?   We are public servants. Our paymasters want as much as they can for their money. Whats more, they are not obliged to see science as a single block.

The Government is minded to appoint a Minister for Life Sciences. Now stop obsessing about UKSA and worry about that instead.

Minister for Space anyone ?

LHC is go

March 30, 2010

LHC is seeing collisions ! Twitterers have been seeing this stuff all day, and Lord Drayson is awfully excited, but for the rest of you, here is a message from Edinburgh LHCb chum Franz Muheim with the key links :

Dear all,

Today at about 13:06 CEST the LHC has started colliding proton beams at 7 TeV. 🙂

This is the start of a new era in particle physics.

The webcast is ongoing at
See the press release from the CERN Director below.

Events from ATLAS and LHCb can be viewed at

A happy Edinburgh PhD graduate student in the LHCb control room




March 23, 2010

So what happened at the Grand Launch ? Well mostly, lots of speechifying and photo-opps with schoolkids and UK astronaut Tim Peak. We got about twenty minutes of Mandelson before he slipped out the back. Not bad for such a busy chap, and what with Byers-gate and all that. I probably got more out of gossiping with folk over coffee and biccies than from the speeches. The questions were also helpful, apart from the gharssly planted schoolkid question. You can read some background in my earlier post, and the official BNSC statement, but here are my informal bullet points :

  • The Government agrees with “the great majority” of the IG Team’s recommendations, but we ain’t getting promised that £550M just yet. That will be decided “project by project”
  • Theres £40M now to create the ISIC at Harwell. Apparently this is £12M from BIS and £28M from an alliance of RDAs led by SEEDA. In the corridor, STFC chaps assured me that none of this was from the STFC budget.
  • The beast is called UK Space Agency. Somebody asked if we pronounce it uch-ser but Drayson reckoned UK Space Agency was short enough.
  • We got an exciting new logo. Actually I hated it. Looks like something somebody invented for a fictional fascist party in a cheap TV drama. Modern and thrusting and all that. But I guess its memorable.
  • UKSA officially starts on April 1st. David Williams from BNSC is interim Director, but there will now be a recruitment process jolly soon.
  • Meanwhile the office is in Polaris House, Swindon. Some STFC staff have moved several feet already. Final HQ not officially decided, but I don’t think the ATC will be putting in a bid, as it is not in a County Beginning with O.
  • The lunchtime gossip was that the recruitment of the Director is crucial. We may be looking at re-arranging  deck-chairs, but the opportunity is there for a strong leader to force real change.
  • Sources tell me that the ISIC plans are ready to roll and it could be “built in a year”. Other sources tell me that actually folks are looking at buying something currently under-used on Harwell campus…
  • Andy Green (Logica, IGT leader) did a heavy plug for the hub-and-spokes thing, so maybe there is real opportunity for investment other than in Harwell. If there is ever any more real extra money.
  • Old timers reckoned this whole thing was hovering somewhere in between the classic government announcement-about-nothing, and a real major investment. There was a feeling that there is a real intention to be serious about the growth of the space sector, but intentions are cheap… Anyway, we should engage rather than sniff.
  • Drayson said there would be a “single budget” but that the science budget would be separate and ring-fenced. But really there are three separate things related to space science – exploitation money, project build money, and technology R&D money. The most optimistic thing for the academic sector is that re-structuring may let us get at part three.
  • One knowledgeable source suggested to me that UKSA may hold the space science project budget, but we will still apply to STFC. Hmmm.

* PLS = Post Launch Summary. Space Junkies Joke.

Spaceward Ho

March 23, 2010

So where did all this Space Agency stuff come from ? Here are a few thoughts and links before the lift off.

Joined Up Space.
We already have the British National Space Agency. Its a kind of loose partnership, a central bureaucratic node, and a fairly low key PR machine. It doesn’t actually do stuff. So the idea is that we need an Executive Agency. This was nicely explained the other day by Paul Murdin on the Radio 4 show, Material World. The idea of the new agency was announced in December 2009, and the transition plan seems to be being handled by BNSC. The key bodies are the UK Space Board (chaired by Keith Mason) and the Space Advisory Council (chaired by Dick Holdaway), so the STFC/RAL/Harwell nexus is well represented there…

Astro PR Value.
What really strikes me is that on the BNSC front page, half the stories are usually about astronomy, and the glitzy “UK in Space” video is dominated by pictures of the Universe. Astronomical activity in space obviously has an enormous PR value. How do we capitalise on that ?

The Growth Strategy.
The space agency idea could be seen in the context of the existing UK Civil Space Strategy 2008-2012, but the real action started since Drayson took over. The “Space Innovation and Growth Strategy” has its own website. Its key report is really worth a read. Its not just the usual cotton wool. Its full of hard stuff, deliverables and dates.

The Money.

  • The current civil space budget is £268M
  • Right now that is way behind France, Italy and Germany – see the graph in this BBC article.
  • The IGS report proposes to double this to £550M in 10 years
  • The claim is that although we are talking about a Government spend of £270M, the value to the economy is £6.5bn; and after doubling government spend to £550M we get a value of £40bn. I guess I need to read the report to understand this….
  • The idea is to fund capital investments using PFI : commerce puts up the money but the government underwrites, by promising to be the main customer. In other words we pay later. PFI is the Gordon Brown Big Idea.
  • Out of that £268M, STFC is £118M – see this BNSC web page.

Research Councils come, Research Councils go, but The Lab goes on forever.

So… we need an Executive Agency. An organisation that does stuff. But who does stuff now ? Well… apart from the industrial companies …. RAL. Two other things may slot in here. The first is the new ESA centre at Harwell. An agreement with ESA was made in November 2008, and the centre physically launched in July 2009. It is initially in temporary accomodation in the ATLAS centre. The second thing is the International Space Innovation Centre (ISIC). This was originally one of STFC’s Gateway Centres, along with the Detector Systems Centre, the Hartree Centre, and the Imaging Solutions Centre. The new version of that web page has removed ISIC, but it is still listed as one of the Gateway Centres here. The BNSC web site has an information document about ISIC which is linked to this page. This explains that ISIC will be a purpose built building or buildings at Harwell, and that the ESA centre will be located inside it once it is ready.

So we see the final piece of the puzzle in recommendation 14.1 of the IGS report : the UKESA to relocate to Harwell July 2011. Those guys at The Lab plan ahead, boys and girls.

Astronomical Implications.
Very clearly the new UKESA is about commercial space activity, not about science done from space. The IGS report doesn’t even mention astronomy, or even moon exploration. However, a considerable proportion of the current government spend is about space science of one kind or another, and as I have noted above, it is used very heavily for PR. What are the plans ? One key issue of interest to us all is what happens to the space science budget as well as the ESA subscription – not the grants for postdocs to exploit ESA facilities, which will presumably stay with STFC and/or its successor, but the budget for University groups who want to design and build instruments for those missions. Personally I think multiple sources of funding for astronomy, as opposed to a single government route, could be a healthy thing. But … we need to watch the peas under the cup. Meanwhile, there is another key issue which I haven’t yet heard others fret about … will design and build effort be more concentrated than at present ? Is this good news or bad news for Leicester, MSSL, Birmingham, and the ATC ? Is it gravy for all, or time to rationalise somewhere near the dreaming towers of Didcot ? Sorry, that should have been “steaming towers”.

The IGS report speaks of “hub and spokes” but the next few months or so could be crucial in understanding what that means.

Joint post : UK space liftoff

March 21, 2010

Three v.v.exciting things happened in the last few days. (i) I signed up for Twitter. You can find me here. Pretty quickly lots of old chums and blog readers sent “welcome aboard !” messages, including some that said “does he know what he has let himself in for ?” Gulp. (ii) I got an email from Lord Mandelson. This invited me to the launch of the new space agency on Tuesday coming. As Googleman John Taylor said, “Andy meet Mandy” ? (iii) Paul Crowther, National Treasure, sent me another guest post. He was worried that I haven’t fretted enough about the whole STFC restructuring / space agency thing, so he would just have to do it for me. Okey dokey Paul. Here we go :

Crowther on :

Following Lord Drayson’s structural `fix’ of STFC, I thought it timely to reassess whether STFC is finally on a road to recovery or still languishing in intensive care? This coming Tuesday, March 23rd, looks set to be significant for STFC’s future health in three ways:

a) Lord Drayson’s new UK space agency is launched. Currently STFC contributes a major fraction of the UK civil space spend, via ESA subscriptions (including Aurora) and domestic R&D. Should we welcome or fear the transfer of funds from STFC? Personally, the sooner ESA’s subscription shifts across the better, since this heavily distorts STFC’s spending on astronomy/space science. Space was a major focus of STFC’s submission for the last spending round, so perhaps the removal of this element might allow STFC to renew its emphasis upon science?

b) The S&T select ctte are to publish their Impact of Spending Cuts on Science report, whose terms of reference explicitly included STFC’s difficulties. Some interesting submissions from organizations and individuals have already been made public. Non-STFC users of Diamond and ISIS should be very pleased with the fix, but STFC will still shoulder the burden of fixed staff costs of Rutherford/Daresbury labs, and treasury-imposed non-cash `allocations’ which which continued to distort STFC’s allocation in future spending rounds. Will the retiring committee chair Phil Willis MP be as critical of STFC (and HM government) as he was two years ago in his Science Budget Allocation report?

c) Although some of the external issues affecting STFC look set to be put right, the fear remains that the UK will quickly slip down the league tables in astronomy and space science as a result of too little support, for too few facilities. University vice-chancellors, mindful of STFC’s recent problems, will be reluctant to recruit staff to fundamental physics anytime soon. This brings us to the third of Tuesday’s events, namely a Commons debate on the Future of Physics Research secured by the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, Dr Evan Harris MP. The threat to some departments has not been publicly acknowledged by STFC senior management, but they must recognise the major financial problems now affecting physics around the country.

Beyond this week’s events, much still depends upon internal structural changes within STFC. Concerns remain that scientific peer review, despite appearances (read Prof John Womersley’s view in this week’s RF), is unable to compete on a level playing field with STFC’s stategic priorities. Still, ring-fencing operating costs for Diamond/ISIS might lead to the dissolution of Science Board, potentially bringing advisory panel recommendations one level closer to decision making. The volume of university grants remains volatile in the medium-term, and depends critically upon a successful bid by STFC for the next spending round, which is anticipated to commence within the next 12 months. Lets hope that preparations for the spending round submission are already underway by STFC’s executive and scientific advisory committees.

Crowther off

I do intend to go to this launch, and try to understand better what the relation is between this, the ESA Centre, and the Gateway Centres. Watch this space. I expect I might even Twitter while I am there…

Phil Charles fallout

March 18, 2010

Nature News has a very interesting update on the continuing Phil Charles story. Here is a precis :

  • Phil Charles has been re-instated and publicly declared innocent of all charges.
  • …but the NRF has still not said … err… what the charges were. (Here is last week’s press release.)
  • Phil Charles is is not allowed to discuss these charges
  • The NRF say the charges were definitely nothing to do with location of the MeerKAT HQ site. No sirree. Purely to do with unauthorised circulation of confidential documents…
  • Michael Feast states this actually refers to an email that Charles forwarded to colleagues
  • That email concerned …  the location of the MeerKAT HQ site
  • Royal Society of South Africa has called for “public inquiry into this damaging incident”

So if Phil was hoping to settle down to a quiet life he might be disappointed.

Update Friday : the Department of Science Technology issued this press release. It explains that although last week’s NRF press release seemed to say “the judge says you was not guilty, but we know where you live , see”, actually this was just an “unintended ambiguity”.

Vizier sees all

March 16, 2010

Here I am in Heidelberg for another Virtual Observatory meeting. Nice place. Pleasant journey, apart from German Bloke With Kilt at Edinburgh airport. Normally, one sees kilts in two circumstances. First, young Scottish chaps at weddings, ceilidhs etc. Two, American tourists on the Royal Mile. So this was a third category. Hairy German biker type with long hair and earrings who I guess decided it looked tough. Thing is, he hadn’t worked out how one sits politely when wearing a skirt. Either that or he was a very confident chap. Except that he had no particular reason to be so. Oh no, stop, enough ! Don’t look ! Out vile jelly !

Talking of the all-seeing eye, my CDS chums tell me they know about your lunch breaks. The Vizier servers can tell how long a given IP address is connected, and when it comes back. So our Alsatian friends know how long you have for lunch. Apparently it is very clear that the Spanish have the longest lunch breaks and the Brits have the shortest…

Phil Charles latest

March 12, 2010

A wee birdy just told me that as of 30 minutes ago, Phil Charles was cleared of all charges.

Haven’t seen an official announcement yet….

Evening update : The Nature news team have been quick off the mark. They have a story already. As you will see there, it is still officially completely unclear what Phil Charles was actually accused of. But maybe we will find out by Monday…

Midnight update : Here is the NRF announcement. Possibly a tad petulant and stunningly unspecific.

Exams, browsers, and the Outernet

March 12, 2010

Going slightly stir crazy, trying to write exam questions. I can never understand why it’s so hard … it ought to be easy, but it ain’t. There is a real motivational barrier. Every so often yer hasster take a break.

So what does an astrogeek do for relaxation ? Why, of course, roam the Internut and find free software to try out. Recently I have been systematically test driving web browsers. At the end of the day, I stick with Firefox because its the only thing that works with Zotero and (reliably) with Tiddlywiki, both of which I use every day, but I have checked out Safari, SeamonkeyCamino, Chrome, Opera, Flock, and Konqueror (on my Ubuntu VM). They are all pretty much of a muchness. Flock is trendy and slightly different because it has built in social networking stuff, but hey, I will leave that to the kids, like Eric. Amaya is also somewhat different – its a web authoring tool, but you can use it as a browser.

But at last I found something different, and fun : Outernet Explorer. This is a web browser written by an artist called Gregor Wright. No need to think. Just press Go. The app generates a random search phrase, bungs it into Bing, and you get what you get. Surprises await. Hours of random fun. Love it.

Possibly even better is the Dream Generator. Last night you dreamed that … you were vomiting on an ambulance in a zoo. Last night you dreamed that … a drunk architect was biting you. Last night you dreamed that … a zebra was running away from you in an empty warehouse. Last night you dreamed that … a gang of angry astronomers evaporated.

Nearly as good as Weirdsville. Regular readers may also remember Tom Collins’ stochastic music website, which Steve Serjeant put us on to. Further aleatoric contributions welcome, short of whole novels. I did try to read The Naked Lunch, but I think I concluded random is best in short bursts.

Phil Charles update

March 7, 2010

Regular readers will be aware of the Phil Charles suspension issue. The attached NRF press release has come to my attention; it seems that both the accusation and defense sides have been heard, and the Chairman of the hearing has now retired to consider his verdict … due at the end of the coming week.

Initially many of us had assumed that the hearing would be a one day affair. Then it gradually became clear that it would be spread over multiple days, followed by this consideration period. It seemed to be pretty formal and legalistic, but with the defense case heard BEFORE the accusations, which seems quite bizarre. Halfway through, there was an attempted intervention by the Science Minister, Naledi Pandor, as described in this piece in the Mail and Guardian. This shows I guess that the shocked international reaction has made a difference.

But at the end of the day it may come down to judgement by senior NRF staff. None of us know exactly what happened, or what the NRF rule book says; just that firing an honourable figure like Charles on a technicality would be a mistake – politically, managerially, and morally.

Cross fingers for the final run.