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.