Decadal bullets

August 14, 2010

So Astro 2010 is on the streets. His Darkness Peter Coles already has an interesting post out in which he makes  two suggestions – first that  the European plan should be deliberately orthogonal to the US plan, and second that we need something similar – a strategic review process that is independent of our funding agency.

It was a fun day for me, as LSST came out so well and I was there at the all hands meeting. Folks were optimistic but uncertain. Project Manager Don Sweeney had a bottle of whisky ready for himself if the news was bad, but as the news was good he quickly got the hotel to rustle up champagne. Later that day I toured the Steward Mirror Lab and saw the LSST blank. It is very weird, having the primary and the tertiary in one block of glass. And this morning that moment was immortalised, as I saw a photo of myself at the Mirror Lab on the front page of the Arizona Daily Star ! But you have to squint. I am third from the left in the line on the ground.

I tweeted the results as they came out in Blandford’s presentation. You can still see the tweets here. I don’t think I am quite ready for a considered analysis – I need time for the dust of a thousand truths to settle on my head – so here are just a few highlight bullets.

  • Space first priority is WFIRST, an IR sky survey mission. Took me by surprise. Seems to be a recast JDEM. An issue for Euclid fans as we thought the JDEM folk would get offered a 20% buy-in to Euclid. Head spinning. This one is fun but scary.
  • LISA beats IXO. Really bad news for X-ray astronomy as a field. At first I thought EXIST would sneak up, but actually it is killed dead. X-ray astronomy needs a really serious re-grouping exercise.
  • Beef up the Explorer program from 40M to 100M per year. Spot on. Fantastic. Start a ground based equivalent of the Explorer program at 40M/yr. Again, fantastic.
  • LSST number one on the ground. What can I say. Except … can we buy into PanSTARRS as well please ? And can we have another go at UK/ESO ? Sorry, somewhat biased here.
  • Choose quickly between TMT and GMT for a 25% federal buy-in. (Both projects are mostly private.). NOAO and Steward folks didn’t like this, and wanted to buy in at half as much to both. Steward Mirror Lab has already started on the GMT mirrors. Saw one being polished.  But its all about doing a deal with ESO, dudes.
  • Buy in to SPICA, ACTA, and CCAT. All excellent choices, but there could have been others too.
  • In the Q&A session, Martha Haynes was asked about SKA, and she said three fascinating things. I paraphrase. One : its really exciting. Two : happening too fast, no money left, sorry. Three : technological readiness questionable. There are some dots you can join there. Please note the above statements are my personal take and not verbatim what Haynes said.

Finally, a point I would make that gels with Peter’s post. When asked why LSST came first, they said “it looks ready to go” and that is correct. But I think the more important point is the groundswell of opinion that they couldn’t ignore. LSST has very extensive “science collaborations” who are working closely with the project, and produced an amazingly comprehensive and convincing Science Book, involving hundreds of scientists. A key point is that those people didn’t just sit on a committee and pontificate about what they would like. They did huge amounts of real work. This makes it unambiguous that they are serious.  The same thing is true for PanSTARRS, but at a smaller level as it is a limited private consortium. The interested scientists did not sit back and wait for things to fall in their lap.

Poolside Perseids

August 13, 2010

Mostly since arriving in Arizona I have gone to bed early and gotten up early. This fits in well with the jetlag, but also means you have several hours in the morning when its bearable to be outside. (105 degrees this week).

However tonight I made an exception because it seemed the right thing to stay up late and watch for Perseids. I am obviously not alone, because the great Twitter meteorwatch was so popular it crashed the server. It was also a popular idea amongst meeting attendees today, and indeed the done thing was to watch the meteors floating on your back in the hotel swimming pool. With a beer.

Could have been you, Keith.

Anyhoo, must go to sleep now.  Up bright and early for the Blandford Show.

Gird your loins

August 10, 2010

Your correspondent finds himself this week in the Arizona desert, at the LSST All Hands Meeting. Of course, our brave effort last year to convince STFC to fund a UK participation came to nought. Close but no cigar. Well, actually, nowhere near a cigar, not even a quick drag on someone else’s ciggy. Strangely though the LSST folk are still chummy so some Brits get invited. As well as mineself, the awfully nice and quite tall Chris Lintott is here and gave a splendid plenary talk on the Zooniverse and why LSST needs it. He did use the word “synergy” in his talk, but immediately apologised.

On Friday morning at 0800 we will all assemble to watch a webcast from Washington DC, for yea, this will be the moment in time when the conclusions of Astro2010, aka the decadal survey, will be unveiled. The pdf file will be released at the same time. Apparently the agencies (NSF, NASA, DOE etc) have had the report since August 3rd. They are doing some quick sums, cos they know they are going to get asked questions, and want to be ready. There are one or two NSF types here but they are playing a very straight bat. Except they don’t know that’s what they are doing, because they don’t speak cricket. Anyway, back in the UK you too can watch the show : check it out here. Kickoff is at 1600 BST.

In discussing the funding prospects, Sidney Wolff quoted Riccardo Giacconi as saying that a successful big project needs to think about the science, the technology, and the politics – in that order. Miss one out and you fail. Get them in the wrong order and you fail. In the UK just now we are worrying about the political spin for our whole subject rather than just one project. The Big Question is “do we deliver for the economy ?”. A marvelous contribution to this debate, and a very well timed one, has just been delivered by the Royal Astronomical Society – a report called Big Science for the Big Society on how astronomy has an impact on society at large. It is a marvelous piece of work, and I urge you to read it and pass a copy to your local MP. Who knows if it will work, but its an honest and powerful piece of PR.

End of an era

August 8, 2010

Polish your CV. You could be the next CEO of STFC. If there is anything left to run.

Just before my holidays, I mentioned an STFC web page asking for input to the CSR discussion. This has three interesting updates. The first is a report from Science Board and PPAN. Nothing surprising or scary in this. The second  is news from Council. This is normally so dull it makes you want to chew your own foot off, but on this occasion contains news that will surprise some : the STFC CEO has made it known that he will not take up a second term, and so will leave in March 2012. Council have already set up a subgroup to establish the requirements for his successor.

I think we are way past the personal recriminations stage, so no schadenfreude please. I am tempted to open a book, but probably thats not suitable for public discussion either.

So lets look to the future ! The third update is a link to a presentation given by Director of Science Programmes, John Womersley, to the recent Astronomy Forum.  The bottom line is that BIS will have an answer by October-ish, but the trickle down to STFC won’t be clear until Nov-Dec-ish; and how STFC implements the new budget will be horribly difficult. The feedback our Head of Institute (JAP) gave us was that input is really genuinely desired by Womersley et al. There are going to be some horrible decisions, even if we successfully make the argument that STFC science is investment, and we have less than the Government average 25% cuts.  I am sure individual input will be welcome, but very likely group responses will be more effective, so start lobbying your Head of Department or research group leader.

Even if we were to reduce exploitation grants to zero, we would have a problem. We may be looking at big decisions, like pull out of ESA and do bilaterals, or pull out of CERN. Of course one worry is that negative signals will stop young people committing to the UK; this could be a distinctly non-linear effect, and one that lasts much longer than this spending review.  An interesting positive suggestion that apparently emerged from the Forum was that Fellowships should somehow be strengthened into “New Blood” lectureships. But this requires commitment from our Universities, who ain’t exactly feeling rich either …