INAF disaster

May 28, 2010

Scary breaking news : it seems the Italian Government are seriously considering closing INAF, the National Institute for Astrophysics.Warning : the material below is a mixture of fact, rumour, and speculation, so treat with caution until more facts emerge.

In the wake of the Greek situation, budget cut fever is sweeping Europe, including Italy as well as Britain of course. Berlusconi has announced a 24bn euro programme of austerity measures. As well freezing the salaries of civil servants, teachers and professors for four years, they are seriously considering closing INAF. The rumour I hear is that tenured staff will move to CNR (the National Research Council), with non-tenured staff being “sent home”.  Worried speculation is that Italian astronomy spending may be cut by 50% overall, and Italy may even leave ESO.

The INAF web site has a link to a letter from the Director, Tommaso Macccaro, to the Italian President. Those of you who speak Italian may be able to figure out a bit more.

This decision apparently happened overnight, without warning, and so has Italian astronomers in a state of shock. But I hear that the hit list of institutions has been changing daily, so who knows what may happen, and there may be cause for hope.

Appropriate addresses for letters of support etc :

Minister Maristella Gelmini
FAX no. +39-06-58492057,

INAF Chair Tommaso Maccacaro

Giorgio Napolitano, Italian Republic, The  President,
FAX no. +39-06-46993125

The President, as opposed to Berlusconi, is believed to be a friend of Universities and Research and trying to protect them.

Happy Wesak Day

May 28, 2010

I just agreed as usual to do the facepainting at the primary school fair. I love doing this, and the fact that I am ok at it intrigues me, because I have always been crap at art. I need to get to the bottom of thoughts about Art, Science, Academia, and Buddhism. Yes I know I should be writing a blog post about the new Government’s attitude to space, but just bear with me.

I have sometimes been caught up in academic debates about “bridging the gap between art and science'”. I’ve never seen the issue. My impression is that artists and scientists instinctively get on, each recognising that the others are engaged in creative work. We tend to be mutually in awe. I watch my daughter with a paint brush; a flick of the hand and something magical and evocative appears. How does she do that ? Likewise, artists I know gawp at our mathematical skill, and the ability to conjure up exotic ideas – black holes, the ambiguity of time and space. So there is difference but respect. If anything, the sneering cultural gap is between both of us and the “humanities”, disputatious folk who do not create but who analyse, recycle, and judge ideas.

So what joins Art and Science is creativity, and an instinct that the most important thing in life is to seek truth. There is however something that profoundly divides science and the graphic arts. Why did I manage face painting when I am so awful at drawing ? I think the answer was that I didn’t try to be creative. I just took some examples and copied them. My arty friends said “Well of course. Anybody can draw. You intellectuals just mess it up because you are always trying to draw the idea in your head. Just open your eyes and draw what you can see. Easy.”

Cue mysticism. The aim of meditation is the removal of desire, and the removal of illusion. The reason many people misunderstand mysticism is the assumption that the idea is to reach some deep, mysterious, weird and foggy world. In fact the point is to strip out of our heads the pictures that we force onto our sense data, and just see the world as it is. Like an artist.

So thats a very appealing idea, from both an artistic point of view and from a spiritual point of view. Wow ! Do you mean I can get spiritual insight without having to believe in gods and monsters and the book and all that crap ? Where do I sign ?

But it still leaves a scientist uncomfortable. Those pictures of the world – those theories – are explanatory frameworks. They are why we are doing this. We want to explain, not just reflect. Of course we have to make sure we don’t get dogmatically attached to our theories. If they disagree with the facts, we chuck ’em out and get new ones. That process of sceptically converging on explanations, is what science is. Its not Art. Its not Academic Disputation. Its not Buddhism. Its a method for finding truth..

Mind you, reading the astronomical literature, you get a strong sense of how tangled up we are in the current fashions, how every set of “facts” is seen through a theoretical filter. That organised scepticism thing is really hard. How do we open the doors of perception ?

Happy Wesak Day.

Stay of Execution

May 24, 2010

So, finally, we hear the faint whistle of air as the axe descends, but it slices into the neighbouring neck. Universities are taking a hit but direct science funding is spared for now. You can read the BIS announcement here and the overall Treasury announcement here. Reactions are all over the interweb already – try Robert Peston at the BBC , the Nature Blog, the Universities UK response, the IOP response, and the New Scientist S word analysis.  Nobody has anything particularly deep or original to say apart from how v.important it is to realise that science funding is an investment. The day before, Peter C at least had a novel line, explaining why things are even more miserable in Wales.

There is an awkward atmosphere, because while things ain’t as bad as we feared, and we are left blustering somewhat, we all know that the awfulness is still to come. The Impending Doom still Impends. The axe whistled past us, but our pardon has not arrived. We are trudging back to the cells to wait. It looks like the PR folk at STFC knew this, and have subtly tried to warn us. This very same morning, the STFC website launched a news page comfortingly entitled “Brace yourself for more cold winters to come”.

Usually of course civil servants rather more skilfull than that. Mandarin-speak is one of the great art forms of our civilsation. To cheer yourself up, check out the humour section of the handy website “How to be a Civil Servant” . (Thanks to Pippa who knows of what she speaks.)

For your convenience, I attach a document summarising the methodology that the Civil Service will deploy to implement the newly announce staff reductions.

First Clues

May 19, 2010

This week at IVOA my head is mostly full of VO-style astrogeekery, and astrogeek politics of course, but I am still trying to watch UK events. The new Science Minister has given a briefing for science reporters. It has a few clues for us. You can read reports of what he said at the Beeb, at the Nature blog, and at the New Scientist S Word blog. There is a particularly thorough analysis by Mark Henderson at Times Online. For your convenience, here are a few bullet points :

  • Times are tough, don’t expect good news
  • His argument in Cabinet will be that spending on science is investment not a drain
  • He made only motherhood statements about blue skies research…
  • … but was at least explicitly sceptical about “impact” in REF
  • He is clearly keen on the space push …
  • … but cynical about UKSA to date
  • Climate change is real
  • Henderson says he likes the Nurse-style elite funding agenda … but this really isn’t clear to me
  • No Research Council re-organisation plans

None of this tells us what his attitude to astronomy or particle physics might be. Its not clear that “Blue Skies Research” includes “Dark Skies Research”. Although it could mean “anything not immediately useful”, you could easily restrict it to “things that aren’t useful yet” and so exclude things that obviously will never be useful. Note that although he is clearly sceptical of naive mechanical impact stuff, his argument for science is still rooted in its economic value.

By the way, does anybody remember that before the election the Lib Dems said they would plug holes in STFC by (a) cancelling the Share Services Centre, and (b) cancelling STFC Science and Society Spend ? Well, a few more pennies wouldn’t hurt.

Meet The New Boss

May 14, 2010

I just saw a tweet from Lord Drayson that said “helping my children with their homework now I have a bit more time”. I imagine his garden will get spruced up too.

So now there is a new Government, all our troubles will be over right ? The Problem of UK Physics Will Be Solved ! Hmmm. Thinks. Remembers last time there was a Conservative Government. Astronomy budget plummeted year on year. Ahh. Any jobs in America ?

But actually there seems to be a mood of cautious optimism reverberating through the scientific blogosphere and  twitterscape. The new Boss of BIS is the man who should have been Chancellor, the eminently sensible Vince Cable – and the new Minister for Universities and Science is David “Two Brains” Willets. His appointment was warmly welcomed by BBC News, by Times Online , by New Scientist, and by Research Fortnight. Today the New Scientist S-Word blog had the first interview with Willetts.

I guess its early days, but he seems to be making sensible noises so far. Thinks blue skies research is important,  isn’t keen on the “impact” agenda, and says we need a “stable framework”.

Sounds pretty sensible for science in general…. but it doesn’t follow, I’m afraid, that the fortunes of astronomy and particle physics will reverse. I don’t think our problem has been that Paul Drayson thought astronomy was rubbish.

Anyway. About five hours sleep then I am off to Canada for the twice yearly IVOA shindig.

Zoo hysteria

May 11, 2010

Citizen Science is taking over the world. Galaxy Zoo has been a huge popular success, and seems to have done a modicum of science as well. Then it became Zooniverse and split into Galaxy Zoo Hubble, Galaxy Zoo Mergers, and Galaxy Zoo Supernovae. Next up was  Solar Stormwatch, where the citizen can help to keep the world safe from solar storms.

And now – taran tara – we have Moon Zoo.  Therein the citizen scientist will find lotsa pictures by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the opportunity to label all the craters. Well this does look like a fun game, but I was surprised to find this claimed as something humans can do better than computers. Doesn’t sound too tricky. We are not talking about classification. We are talking about plonking down a cross and expanding a circle to fit the size. I expect I am missing something. But anyhoo, it will be interesting to see if this is as popular as classifying galaxies.

What about getting Joe Public to classify organisms ? You know, a kind of Zoo Zoo ? Or maybe the contents of dessicated faeces from neolitihic villages ? Poo Zoo ?

Units Rant

May 10, 2010

Way Back in the 1960s (spot that quote) our physics teacher told us that in the funny old days the absorption of sound was measured in cubic yards of Standard British Cushion, but now that we lived in enlightened times we measured it in square metres of open window. That helped to teach us the necessity of converting carefully between units, but also gave us a healthy disrespect for any particular units, and reminded us that units are operationally defined. They are not philosophical magic.

Wind forward a few years and I was in the thick of my astronomy PhD, in the wonderful world of parsecs and solar masses. In X-ray astronomy we also had Uhuru Flux Units (UFU) and my good friend the milli-crab. Such weird units are of course awfully important to protect the mystique of a specialism. We don’t want any old fool thinking they can be an X-ray astronomer, now do we we ? I believe Antarctic ozone hole pundits use Dobson Units. But they are also truly natural units, in two ways. First, they give sensible human sized numbers you can think with. Would you like the distance to your star to be 3.2 parsec or 9.9 times 10^16 m ? Second, you can get on with stuff even before you have solved all your problems – quasar A is seven times as bright as quasar B whether you know the absolute flux of the Crab or not. You can sort that later.

Wind forward another few years and I was about to teach my first lectures at QMW. Time to shed those quirky units and do everything in SI. This held one or two surprises. The Eddington limit, the largest luminosity a body can have without blowing away its atmosphere, is very big for black holes. Every X-ray astronomer knows the number – 1.3 times 10^38 erg per second per solar mass. Yes, we love BIG numbers. What I do is extreme astrophysics. Black holes are the solution to quasars because they are the most efficient known power source !

Now lets have that in SI.  What I got was L=6.39M. Feeble. I checked it six times, but it was right. A one kg black hole gives you a pathetic 6 watts. My little electric fire does three hundred times better than a black hole of similar mass ! Ahh… but its not the electric fire that makes the power … its the enormous power station its connected to. In a similar way, accretion is not particularly impressive or efficient per unit mass of accretee – its efficient per unit mass of accretor. Once you have that huge black hole, you only need to drip a tiny amount of stuff onto it to generate lots of power. So whats my point here ? That its all about building physical instincts. There is no perfect global unit system. Switching between systems is like switching between physical domains, and that act in itself can teach you lessons.

You can only be “natural” within a domain.This is why the “natural units” touted by theorists, where h=c=1, are a bit irritating, just because they often come bundled with a kind of arrogant mysticism, as if this idea was revealing something deep about the structure of the universe. Au contraire, they are a convenience, just like parsecs.  They are jolly sensible if you are doing some kinds of calculations, because you don’t have to carry round awkward numbers and the equations are easier to follow. But if you are calculating real world quantities, those awkward numbers have to pop back out somewhere.

I have lots of other units rants (I bet you do too) but I had better stop there.

Oh hang on, just one more. This Galactic Guide web page is quite fun. My favourite bit is right at the end, where they recommend students answer a question by saying “The answer is 12.7 Meulens, where the Meulen is defined via this problem”.

Six degrees of Twitter

May 4, 2010

Its hard to be original. When I first signed up with Twitter, I liked it straight away, somewhat to my surprise, as I have never liked Facebook, and saw Twitter and Facebook as the twin spearheads of trivia. One pleasant Twitter surprise was the spare simplicity. Only does one thing. No ads. Strict 140 character limit. That kind of discipline can be good for artistic expression. An idea jumped into my head. Twitter Haikus ! Ten minutes later I realised that Twitter is swarming with haikus. Those of you on Twitter can just search on #haiku; others can see a constant stream of twitter haikus here and more nice stuff here .

Half an hour later I thought … how about a Twitter Novel … twenty first century Dickens ? However … I guess I don’t need to carry on.  For your enjoyment here is the stream from the currently ongoing Twitter version of Romeo and Juliet.

A week later I had noticed that when I got a new folllower, it was kinda fun clicking at random on their followers or followees, to see where I ended up. Pretty soon I found myself having “small world” thoughts – how many links separate any two Twitterers ? Could be a game, or a research project, thought I.

Scooped again. Through TechCrunch, to which I am mildly addicted, I learned of a report by a company called Sysomos which apparently gives us the answer. They analysed 5.2 billion connections and concluded that Twitter users are on average separated by 4.67 steps.

However, I couldn’t figure out what they really did. They say they analysed Twitter “friendships” but Twitter doesn’t have “friends”. It has followers and followees. They can’t be using followees, as any fule can search for a famous person and follow them. Bingo. One step. But they obviously don’t mean followers either, because the article refers to the phenomenon of coming across one of your followers after a few friendship links. This article suggests that a reasonable definition of “friend” on Twitter is someone you have directed a post to (with “@”) at least twice. But who knows if thats what Sysomos did ?

I have just sweated through two stressful peer review experiences. But getting cross with the Sysomos report reminded me how good the peer reviewed literature is. You couldn’t get away with not defining your methods at MNRAS.

Is this six-degrees-small-world just pop nonsense or is there really something to it ? Yes, a graph with six links can connect extremely large numbers of nodes. But that doesn’t tell us much about how real world networks actually develop. Don’t networks divide into islands ? There is a good wikipedia page on the subject and at least one quite famous serious paper ( Watts and Strogatz 1998) but this web article casts doubt on the whole thing.

I’d tell you the answer If only I had any energy left after solving quasars, marking exams, and reading nine million grant proposals.