Pre-holiday miscellany

July 23, 2010

In a few hours I will be in an internetless Cornish cottage. Assorted thoughts are buzzing about the front of my head that might otherwise have turned into blog posts.

Astro2010: the Hour Approacheth. The US Decadal Survey of Astrophysics has had its final committee meeting (see picture ) and they are beavering away writing the report. I hear the report will emerge during early to mid August. I think somebody even told me the date, but I’ve forgotten. Who wins, LSST or GSMT ? Which version of GSMT gets favoured ? The one ELT can interbreed with or the other one ?

CSR : are we dead or what ? The results of the Comprehensive Spending Review won’t be know for some time, but STFC are gearing up for the bad news, and asking for input to spending review plans. Possibly this news item isn’t blunt enough. So much of STFC’s money is tied up in subscriptions, operating major facilities like Diamond, and committed big projects, that a fairly spread 25% cut is basically impossible. Please choose between astronomy and particle physics.

Women in Science. There ain’t enough women in science, especially in the upper reaches. Its been puzzling many of us for years.This article in the Huffington Post describes some interesting new ideas that smell right. Its not that they ain’t smart enough. Its not that they get squeezed out by sexism. Its that they get put off by science being too ego driven and aggressive. Smells right to me. If we can fix that, the science workplace will be better for all of us.

Buttons. Buttons puzzle me. Not the sort that do coats up. The sort you press to take action. They seem so natural, but there ain’t none in nature. How can we have evolved to instinctively know to press buttons ? We love buttons. Desmond pushes the button every two hours to save the earth . We can’t resist pushing buttons even if we are told not to. People push placebo buttons. I found an interesting discussion at an anarchist philosophy forum which I shall quote from :

If you put a bird in a cage with a button that he has to peck in order to be fed, he’s gonna try pecking it and he’s gonna be fed. Birds don’t stumble on such buttons in nature: this is not hard-coded. But make the correlation more vague and the bird will develop superstitions, just like human beings do. They were not taught to be superstitious. There is no bird parent out there going “well, sometimes when I swirl around to the left five times, food magically appears.

There’s another PhD thesis for somebody. Well anyhoo. Time to do nothing for a week or so.


Class War / Entropy

July 22, 2010

My Carbon Manifestation has been a tad occupied of late – work, visitors, domestic stuff – and hence my Silicon Being has been sadly neglected. A shame, because there has been plenty of astro-pol related stuff to blog about – the future of X-ray astronomy, panics about private Universities, speeches by Willetts with tantalising clues about what may happen to  science funding priorities, Martin Rees being attacked in the Guardian. I am even on Strudel’s amusing new Astronomer HR diagram .

That austerity stuff is starting to bite. Here in the Athens of the North, we got a letter from the Principal announcing that this year’s Professorial Pay Review is cancelled. The Universities all got letters from the Government saying “We’d like you to think hard about senior pay. Looks bad to pay top chaps too much when we are asking a lot of The Nation. Purely your choice of course. But we do know where you live.” I had assumed that this “top people pay” thingy was all about Jonathan Ross and his six million, or maybe fat cat Vice Chancellors etc. But no. Seems to mean all profs – anybody earning £53,918 and up, whose salaries are determined year by year based on performance review. But this year it seems we needn’t bother publishing any high impact papers or leading international projects cos it won’t make any difference.

Profs are in an interesting place in the coming class war. We ain’t exactly poor, and we ain’t exactly rich.  Class War did you say ? Well, I feel that Osborne’s cover is being blown by an increasing number of right wing commentators who are turning up on Radio Four etc with comments along the lines of how rolling back the state is overdue, and people are too reliant on handouts, etc. At the same time, Union reps are starting to roll up their sleeves, and left wing commentators are saying err, excuse me, seems we have been screwed by greedy bankers, and now the poor have to pay ?? Found myself thinking of that very rude song. I shan’t remind you of the rude bits, just the chorus that goes “Its the rich what gets the pleasure, its the poor what gets the blame. Its the same the whole world over, ain’t it all a fucking shame”.

This could get nasty. Did they really think 25% cuts to the state would go down quietly ?

Meanwhile Cameron is over in the USA. He is getting beaten up over BP and Megrahi and all that, but austerity-vs-stimulus is left as an “agree to differ” kind of thing. The word “stimulus” doesn’t quite catch the issue I think.  There are really three things the State can do. One is State Activity – the police, the army, the NHS etc. We all know that stuff tends to slowly bloat and become inefficient, so good luck to the Government there. Two is stoking the economic fire – play with interest rates, pump money in to the economy to get things going etc. This is what folks usually mean by stimulus. We build pyramids. We know its pointless really, but it gives people jobs, then they spend their dollars in MacDonalds, etc. Or we cut public spending and taxes so people have more dollars in their wallets. And then spend them in MacDonalds etc.

The third thing is investment in infrastructure.  Sometimes this is what people mean by stimulus but its really very different. When the Government builds roads and railways and information superhighways etc new economic activity becomes possible. The effect of building infrastructure is not a bubble or illusion or about accelerating the circulation of money. There must be something quantifiable here. I think its entropy. What distinguishes a rich society from a poor one ? Partly its energy. The more oil or coal etc you burn, the more real wealth you have. But there is more than this. Society is an intricate machine – gas pipes, power generation, railway connections, delivery of food to the shops. The other day I needed insurance. A few web clicks and I was done. Then I needed a sink plunger. A walk down the road and there was one waiting for me in a hardware store. Somebody had already made one because they knew I’d want it. We live in a very high information content, low entropy world, and are steadily moving further in this direction. Some of this happens naturally, because humans are entropy changing machines. But we are still fighting the laws of thermodynamics, so the market doesn’t always work. Conscious restructuring effort by the state can have a huge effect.

Anyway. Some reader can I am sure tell me whether this entropy stuff is all standard economic theory, but it may be crucial to the argument for funding science and technology by the state. The only snag is the transparency of science. When you build a road, it decreases entropy right here in the Yookay. When you build knowledge, you’ve done it for the world…