The Scientific Hero Myth

April 27, 2010

Only connect, as E.M.Forster said. For your pleasure tonight I connect astronomer and necromancer John Dee, Nobel prize winner Paul Nurse, and movie icon Kevin Bacon. Ready ?

Today I attended the annual Crawford Lecture on the history of astronomy, this year given by Adam Mosley. His theme was the way we simplify the history of science by presenting it as the passing of the baton from one scientific giant to the next. We saw this story yet again on the TV tonight, in “The Story of Science”. The truth is far more complex, Mosley told us : then as now there was a whole community of scientists with ideas bouncing between them in letters and books. The classic example is the way one hears repeatedly that Tycho Brahe “dissolved the crystal spheres” by observing a comet that must have cracked through several layers. But this idea had been discussed many times by many people; and in fact Brahe never claimed credit for this discovery; he only said that his own comet observations convinced him it was correct.

Adam’s opening gag was a reference to an article in The Onion :  Four or Five Guys Pretty Much Carry Whole Renaissance . Very funny and very much au point.

He also showed us a hairy network diagram of sixteeenth century astronomers illustrating the links between them. Over nibbles afterwards I asked him whether he’d heard of the Erdos number, and indeed he had. Actually, he said, he thought the astronomer turned necromancer John Dee was the sixteenth century Kevin Bacon : the person who minimised the links from Scientist A to Scientist B.

So now check out this interview with Paul Nurse . Sir Paul is lined up to succeed Martin Rees as the next President of the Royal Society. He says we should reform science funding by giving long term support to the small number of scientists who can actually “move the needle”. I must admit some days I feel this too : just give lots of money to the best people and let them get on with it. There’s too much mediocrity in the world.

And yet… isn’t this being suckered into that simple narrative, where the complex fluid dynamics of history is re-written as the human story of four or five guys ?


Fat, Oil Rich, and Comfortable : but not for long

April 23, 2010

Halfway through the latest leaders debate, I got an uncomfortable feeling of detachment. It was when they were asked about passion in politics. For some years, there has been soul searching about the declining turnout rate in elections, and widespread feeling that “they are all the same”. The problem I think is that nothing much is wrong in our lives. There is nothing really big to argue about, no sides to take.

A thousand years ago it was the Church versus the Empire. Five hundred years ago it was freedom of belief. A hundred years ago it was the liberation of the working man. In my youth this titanic struggle was still rattling the world if not shaking it. But thats all over. Socialism is a spent force. We are all rich fat and comfortable; we have TVs, fridges and iPhones; so whats the problem ? If miners are not starving, and no children are being sent up chimneys, and we have universal healthcare (ahem…), nobody cares too much. Even if you feel that voting is a civic responsibility, its hard deciding. You can’t decide by asking “am I one of them or one of us ?”. You have to look at all the damned policies and take an average.

What really matters now ? The rising tide of irrationality ? Well thats scary, but I think we’ll be ok. Climate change ? Well, yes but … as I argued here , maybe its irrelevant because civilisation will collapse soon anyway when the oil runs out . Old chum Alan Penny wrote a strong rebuttal of my pessimistic mutterings, but now I am getting worried again…

As explained in a recent Guardian article, in a Financial Times blog, and this posting in Counter Currents, the US military and the UK government are starting to understand that peak oil may be an imminent reality. This article argues that the US Energy Secretary, Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, has felt this for some years. So it seems that privately the powers that be are starting to take this very seriously. But publicly ? Why isn’t Nick Clegg saying “OK, relax on Trident. We got bigger problems…”

A crunch may be coming. Not only will oil run out, but uranium too, and phosphorous, and so food.

As Tolstoy said, what then must we do ?

Reading list
Peak Oil

The Oil Drum

Peak generation

Peak oil on wikipedia

Are you worthy of Britain ?

April 18, 2010

Not quite sure about the latest Doctor Who yet. Two episodes in a row have been a tad British for my taste. First it was Spaceship UK with Orwellian overtones and Good Queen Bess. Then it was back to the Blitz and Winston Churchill. The episode of Doctor Who Confidential which followed suggested that the Daleks themselves were also a British Icon. I didn’t find all this stuff as stirring as I think I was supposed to. Found myself doubting my patriotism.

Then, courtesy of Norman Gray, I found out how to measure my patriotism. Her Majesty’s Government has kindly provided the Official Practice Citizenship Test. There are 24 multiple choice questions along the lines of “How many parliamentary constituencies are there ?” and “In what year did women obtain the right to divorce their husband ?” and “Which University does Paul Crowther work for ?” Norman announced on Twitter that he had scraped a pass. So I gave it a go and failed miserably (11/24).

So are most astro-blog-readers worthy of being British Citizens ? Give it a go and record your result anonymously below :

Cosmology/Glasgow exam technique

April 15, 2010

Along with a large fraction of the UK astronomical community, I am at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM2010) in Glasgow. Just imagine a well placed bomb. Could be like the Manchester United Plane Crash all over again.

Two fabulous plenary talks this morning from George Esthathiou and Rosie Wyse. Plack has completed its first survey, but George is not allowed to show us the CMB maps yet. We have to wait until October 2012. (Southwood was in the audience, so he had to behave…) But he did give us a taster – Galactic cold dust map, made by combining Planck and IRAS.  Rosie Wyse showed us all sorts of fascinating stellar population data reflecting the merger history of the Milky Way and other nearby galaxies, as expected in the standard CDM cosmology. But she also showed two worrying things. The thick disc is thought to be made by mergers stirring up an older thin disc. But the stars in the thick disc are really old, suggesting the thick disc of the Milky Way has not been affected by mergers since about redshift two. The second niggle was that the distribution of abundances is consistent with the stellar initial mass function being constant through cosmic history – whereas the galaxy formation simulators desperately want early star formation to be high-mass biased. Hmmm.

Brain spinning, I wandered across the corridor to the Hunterian Museum. This has one of my favourite pieces of Glasgow History – the Blackstone Chair. From mediaeval times until the 19th century, this is how Glasgow students were examined. When you were ready, you sat on a special chair surrounded by Profs. They fired questions at you for twenty minutes, with the sand running out just behind your head. Then some flunky stamped a pole on the ground and you were done.

We gotta bring this back.

Sci Vote Mismatch

April 13, 2010

Warning : grumpy posting.

I arrived in London this morning and bought the Guardian. Front page news was the arrival of the lovely new Manifestos from Labour and the Conservatives . The Labour manifesto cover is just so socialist realist. Its a hoot. Anyhoo. In the Science net-o-sphere several blargs and columns have already tried to decode what they say about science – eg Mark Henderson at the Times, and Nick Dusic at the S-Word. General consensus seems to be that the Tory one is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and the Labour one promises a “ring-fence” but doesn’t mention the height of the fence as it were.  Is there actually a significant boffin vote ? Or are we hoping that basically Jane Public will vote for more Brian on the telly ?

Thumbing through my Guardian, I found the G2 section had an article called “How Science became cool” with several nice short pieces by Brian Cox, Martin Rees, Tim Radford and others. (The online version is here ). My favourite is by comedian Dara O’Briain. I didn’t know that he was such a geek. The most puzzling was by Kevin Fong, because his header said he was an astrophysicist, but the footer said he was a lecturer in physiology. Cor. Cool dude.

I found myself pondering two things. One. How does P.B.Cox get any real work done these days ? Two.  Yet again we see public displays of interest are about two thirds due to astronomy and particle physics. And one third genetics.

Conversely last week there was a very nice letter to the Times by a starry array of FRS bigwigs, which was all about how investment in science in general is crucial for a high technology twenty first century economy … but the list of signatories was heavily dominated by astronomers and particle physicists.

There is some kind of reality mismatch here. Is there much evidence that The Government has been mean to Science In General ? Not really. Is there evidence that The Government has been mean specifically to Astronomy and Particle Physics ? Yup. Do the politicians notice who is bitching ? Are the public stupid ? Don’t answer the last two questions.


April 10, 2010

Why do footpaths not go in straight lines ? But first the prologue…

I had the pleasure of returning to Leicester this week, where many moons ago I did my PhD.  Luckily it was indeed a pleasure as the PhD thesis I went to examine was v.good. (Well done Agnese.) Others who want to indulge in Leicester Space Physics nostalgia will want to be going to the groovy Leicester-50 Extreme Universe Conference.  Of course I have been back to Leicester many times, but for some reason I had not for many years found myself approaching the University by foot from the Victoria Park side, as opposed to from the centre of town, or by taxi from EMA. As I approached I had an odd twinge of nostalgia for a footpath I used to follow every day – but it had disappeared, to be replaced by a proper paved path with trees and stuff.

The old path, created organically by thousands of student feet, used to fascinate me – because it was very narrow, less than the width of two feet – and because it did not go in a straight line, but rather a kind of graceful swerve. Why ?

Most people I ask say, well, everybody follows the path, Andy. But they don’t. (Or rather didn’t). I would watch people walking across the park (is that sad ?) and very few were on the path. They tended to walk somewhere near the path, but few people were right on it. I would say the FWHM was about twenty feet. Nontheless walkers are guided by the central narrow path of course, so statistically that central patch gets trodden on more.  So why is the worn patch so narrow ? I guess it has to have something to with the physiology of grass, or the stability of roots. Somehow the probability of grass destruction must be a very non-linear function of grind frequency. So this aspect – the narrowness of the path – seems fairly obvious at first, but highly non-obvious in detail.

So what about the graceful swerve ? Two possibilities come to mind.

The first is that it is determined by features in the environment. Now Vicky Park is completely flat. We are not talking about following topology, or minimum energy paths etc. As you set off, you don’t know the globally optimum path. So why isn’t the result random ? Maybe just everybody thinks “I can see the Charles Wilson building, I’ll head towards that”, and then halfway across thinks “hang on, I can see the gate now, better swing left”.

The second possibility is that starting direction is actually random, but chance concentrations in a particular direction get re-inforced as the grass starts to wear. This is rather like forming large scale structure in the galaxy distribution by the growth of random fluctuations.

Those two possibilities must in principle be testable. In the first case, the graceful swerve would be the same every year. In the second, a new path would form each academic year : the average would be a straight line, but each individual realisation would be a wiggle. Maybe rather than a new path each year, the path could meander from month to month. That brings us back to biology – what is the grass recovery timescale ?

Anybody know the answer ? Sounds like a good research project. Too late for Vicky Park, but there must be countless other examples around, and people who have thought about this seriously. Google failed me but maybe I didn’t try a cunning enough search. Gordon Stewart told me thought there was some scholarly study somewhere, but he couldn’t remember where…

Medium Sized is Beautiful but Too Expensive

April 6, 2010

The election starting gun has been fired, and of course the most important issue is who will be least Nasty to Science, as Adam Rutherford explains in the Grauniad. I will listen carefully because Adam is nearly as good looking  as Brian Cox, and The Cell was possibly even better than the Wonders of the etc etc. Anyhoo. Perhaps more later.

The real news of the day of course was that Astronet has released its review of what Europe should do with its 2-4m telescopes in the 8m age. I have only skimmed this long report so far, but it seems well thought out and realistic.  Scientifically it goes for wide field spectroscopy, echelle spectroscopy, NIR imaging, and the time domain, but also emphasises the need for keeping flexible general purpose facilities – for innovation, for high risk proposals, and for training.

UK readers will nod despairingly, because we are in the process of trying to shut everything down except ESO and a dim vision of ELT and SKA. This feels inevitable  but somehow not quite right – many of the most impressive results of recent years have been made by small telescopes and MIDEX missions. But of course we can’t just stubbornly refuse to shut old things down. The Astronet panel realise this, and know well that countries across Europe are looking to reduce the money spent on smaller facilities, not re-invest in them.

So they do a careful cross match of current capabilities with their scientific goals, and the conclusion is pretty obvious. We need several facilities, but not all of them. Its crying out for a Europe-wide rationalisation. They also do a pretty hard nosed analysis of what saves money and what doesn’t. They conclude that you only save money if (a) you reduce the quality of service, and (b) put things under a single management. Other things – conversion to survey mode, time swapping – don’t save money. Some things – sharing base facilities, sharing support staff – can save money in principle, but if only if you establish a single management and get ruthless. Meanwhile they also recommend a single European Time Allocation Committee.

Sounds great but politically difficult. They do not suggest that ESO should just take it all over. They don’t have a political solution except to recommend that a small technical team is appointed to start an implementation study. I wonder what STFC will make of this.

Where there’s a will there’s a way. Is there a will ?