Gird your loins

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.

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27 Responses to Gird your loins

  1. John Womersley says:

    I’m sure Roger Blandford, at least, is familiar with the game…

  2. andyxl says:

    I have played cricket with Roger at the annual KIPAC picnic. (Equipment provided by a Pakistani postdoc.) I was very pleased to find something Roger was actually fairly crap at.

  3. telescoper says:

    You should definitely gird your loins for cricket, at least when batting.

  4. Tony says:

    Not sure RAS report is the Big Answer. It seems a glossier version of the usual argument that astronomy is important because designing & building the instruments leads to benefits for society and industry. Nothing in that says that we actually need the *astronomers* though. The techniques and technologies might be discovered in developing instruments for other, more directly useful, fields. Similar argument applies to teaching astronomy: the skills would be garnered in teaching other fields. The report does not seem to come up with a materially different argument.

    What is needed is an argument for why we need astronomers; how astronomy research, in and of itself, benefits society or industry. I do not have the answer but do think the discussion needs to happen if you want to persuade government to release more funds to astro research. You need a new argument, not the old one made prettier.

  5. andyxl says:

    Tony – what you say is correct, but the main point is that many folk would assume that nothing useful comes out of astronomy at all. So I think the point does have to be repeatedly made that any cutting edge activity produces high technology spin-off. Its really an argument for science in general, but especially technically demanding science. But yes, it would be nice if we had a modern equivalent of a direct application of astronomy itself, like navigation used to be.

    GPS requires general relativity, and we would have no confidence in this without astronomical measurements.

    • Albert Zijlstra says:

      I believe that a significant benefit of astronomy (and for particle physics as well) lies in human capital. We educate the brightest students there are, and teach them a set of unique skills. They are attracted into physics because we communicate our research to the public. Without a top astronomy program, we would have neither the educators nor the students. We teach them high-level numerical skills, curiosity and intellectual creativity, and the ambition to be the best in the world. (I don’t think any UK astronomer aims to be second best!).

      We also inspire people in other fields: our instrumentation requirement are out of this world, and have helped the improvement of, e.g., CCDs, active optics, data mining, , software, fibres, .. In all these cases, our requirements inspired people in other fields to make major advances.

      (A microsoft person once said that astronomy was important to software development because astronomers share their data. That is unheard of in (say) life sciences. So we have developed data format standards and common software systems. It would be nice to put a financial value on this.)

      • andyxl says:

        The “microsoft person” was Jim Gray, now sadly lost at sea. He was comparing Astronomy to Walmart. He said he liked astronomy because we had lots of data and it was of no value. By this he meant it was free and open. Walmart had a bigger database but they wouldn’t give it to him.

      • Tony says:

        These are the benefits listed in the RAS report, Albert. But they are the same ones used before. I was suggesting coming up with benefits that derive directly from astro research.

        One I thought of was the data and imaging techniques that have been deployed to analyse and visualise large data sets. Can it be shown that an *astronomer* has developed some technique that has been found useful in other areas of research such as medical or engineering.

        I don’t think I’d push the data format standards approach too much. My past experience is that astronomers (or astro developers) prefer to go their own way and are highly resistant to best practice in computer science and commercial computing leading to pretty flaky data standards.

      • Mark Taylor says:

        Tony, on the topic of data format standards – go tell the Pope.

      • Tony says:

        I think if I had access to the pope, Mark, data standards would be a long way down the list of things to tell him 😉

    • Tony says:

      As well as possible direct benefits from data visualisation and analysis, we can bring in the science fiction-y aspects. It was astronomers (yes/no?) who discovered dark energy and dark matter. Understanding these phenomena will rely on testing in the high energy physics and deep observation astronomy fields. And this understanding may well lead to hitherto unimaginable sources of energy (beyond even fusion).

      Maybe RAS should bring in some SF writers in the initial brainstorming sessions, next time 🙂

  6. Simon says:

    Following from the discussion of the RAS report…

    It’s a more subtle argument, the surely one (if not the) main argument for any kind of ‘blue skies’ research is that its most important discoveries may be (are often are) of unimagined importance. (To mankind rather than UK plc.) Think of all those ‘preadapted’ solutions (to use the evolutionists’ jargon) invented by or for apparently useless research: from calculus to lasers and CCDs, from Penicillin to the www. Electricity was thought ‘useless’. And some are of less direct, practical value but enrich and demystify our place in the Universe and lead to new avenues of research that are useful (I’m thinking of the Copernican revolution, evolution, quantum theory, …)

    This is the ‘positive black swan’ argument in Nassim Taleb’s book – you expose yourself (by doing research) to amazingly important but (a priori) completely unpredictable discoveries. Don’t look, won’t find!

    This will not persuade someone who requires only short term economic returns on their investment (I think Faraday had the best reply to such narrow utilitarianism). And yes, it applies to much else besides astronomy.

    • Tony says:

      This argument only works, Simon, if you can point to past discoveries in a given field where that applies. When did the discovery of a galaxy, a new type of star, some new phenomenon (eg GRBs, pulsars) etc ever lead to a real benefit to society? Are there any such examples?

      • Brendan says:

        I once heard of this fellow called Newton who invented some obscure branch of mathematics called calculus, to use in his explanation for the motion of the celestial bodies.

        But I guess calculus never did anything for society.

      • Tony says:

        Exactly the sort of thing I was referring to above, Brendan. Pulling together a set of contemporary examples of that sort into a format like the RAS document would, IMO, be quite beneficial.

      • Phil Uttley says:

        Tony, I think you’re too quick to rule out the contribution of astronomy to developing technology. Consider imaging of radiation for medical purposes or the nuclear industry – those are areas which invest money into developing their own instruments, but they still benefit significantly from technologies developed for astronomy, which probably would not have happened otherwise. The reason is that doing astronomy is hard: we look at very faint things and we often do it from space which is hardly a clean easy environment to work in. So we really have to push the limits of the technology. An example would be large area radiation detectors (e.g. plastic scintillators). It’s obvious why they were developed by astronomers (we need light-buckets to look at faint things), but it turns out they have other uses, e.g. whole-body imaging or to search large objects like trucks for illicit radioactive material.

      • andyxl says:

        Nuclear fusion came out of understanding how stars burn.

      • Tony says:

        Doesn’t really matter what I rule in or out, Phil. It is what target audience of RAS report thinks that matters. And the offshoot technology approach has been used many times before.

        Anyone who does matter could argue against you that giving $500m to medical development instead of building next super detector will likely come up with the same or better equipment as would offshoots. It is difficult to argue that medical industry is incapable of coming up with new technologies on their own and must be primed by prior astro development. Certainly impossible to argue that some technology would never have been found if the money had gone elsewhere.

        BTW, anyone know if the RAS did any focus testing of the brochure on decision makers or looked at whether the offshoot argument is still worth making?

      • Phil Uttley says:

        But Tony, the same argument can be used to shoot down practically any spin-off that any field makes which is relevant to any other field (including the argument about calculus, which was also being developed by Leibniz separately from astronomy), so if we can’t use these kinds of arguments effectively then I give up! In the end we have to hope that our target audience can see that it’s not just as simple as giving someone a bunch of cash (which when targeted tends to get wasted on lower-quality projects, plenty of evidence for that). I think we have to hope that Willetts & Cable can buy that argument (and they are probably the brightest ministerial team science has had for a quite some years). Whether the folks in the Treasury can is a different matter… 😦

  7. Brendan says:

    Calculus is probably a bad example as benefiting society anyway; everyone is always telling me it was bankers and their derivatives that got us into this mess.

  8. Simon says:

    Who knew how important calculus, lasers, the www, etc would be? (Or, for that matter, the scientific revolution – driven by curiosity led research, especially in astronomy – even the word revolution has its roots here.) And who can tell how important fusion or finding/understanding extra dimensions will be?

    Will understanding GRBs, for example, lead to discoveries with such wide implications in the future? Who knows? Most avenues of research will not. But history (the long view, not restricted to four-year terms or economic cycles) shows some will. The modern world works because of their cumulative effect. But you can’t tell which avenues will ‘matter’ until it happens! That’s one reason it’s so exciting.

    Yes, this stuff has more easily quantifiable ‘outcomes’ such as technology spin offs, inspiring interest in STEM subjects generally, unique training in problem solving, etc. And those are part of the case for ‘esoteric’ research. But that’s to miss half the point. Part of the justification must be the results themselves.

    You invest resources into solving important problems, of course. But you also invest a non-trivial fraction of your resources in curiosity-driven ventures, partly for curiosity (“not because it is easy…”) but also knowing they occasionally produce unexpectedly high rewards. (This is the difference between “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” – and it’s the latter that tend to produce (occasionally) the giant leaps forward.

    The only thing we can be certain about is that if we don’t invest we (and future generations) will not reap the rewards.

    This line of argument might not be easy to put into a headline or soundbite, and it might be an old argument, but for my money it’s a deeper and more complete justification than relying on the obvious, short-term spinoffs.

    • ian smail says:

      …but none of these “benefits” are specific to astronomy – this is just an argument for blue skies research – what we need is a new angle for why astronomy should be prefered as an area of blue skies research that the UK taxpayer should fund.

      the RAS brochure is a good attempt to repackage our standard arguments (and at least they’re trying to make the case to the decision makers, for which they should be applauded) – but i agree with tony’s concerns and i don’t have a good answer (killer asteroids anyone?).

      • Simon says:

        Quite so, as I said in my first comment.
        I doubt there is an argument that is specific to astronomy at the exclusion of other fields. But the defence of astronomy should include more than one argument, each of which may be relevant in other areas.
        In astronomy I think we actually have a uniquely long history of research results (and methods) having very important consequences outside the aims of the original research.
        The danger in basing a defence around a single example in a single line of argument (of the Higgs boson/killer asteriod variety) is that the example may cease to be interesting through over-use or when the problem gets either solved or shown to be a dead-end. (Those argument give us a fixed-term contract!)

  9. There is also the industrial juste retour from ESA. The problem is that while it’s a good argument for funding ESA and its astronomy missions, it’s not necessarily an argument for funding UK astronomers. Are there examples where having UK astronomers has had demonstrable benefit to UK space industry? For example, academic talking to industrial contractors during the development of an ESA mission, astronomer says ‘we need this widget’, industry bod says ‘funny you should say that, we did something a bit like that for Kodak’, astronomer says ‘ooh a widget a bit like that would make the time-resolved bit of the science case stronger’, widget included in phase A study which gets glowing scientific and technical reviews, etc…? Fat chance, I suppose? But I think that’s the sort of thing that might address Tony’s point.

    • Phil Uttley says:

      But isn’t that widget more an example of things going the other way, of spin-offs from other areas helping us, not the other way round? What I would argue is that the demands of our research create an environment where specific useful technologies/methods are produced which wouldn’t be produced otherwise (or at least would take much longer to be produced). I think the advanced radiation detectors example is this kind of argument. The idea that spin-offs have to be of a kind that others wouldn’t come up with *under any circumstances* won’t get us anywhere, because by definition, a technology that proves useful to someone could always in principle have been developed because of the perceived requirements of that field. Of course, this point-of-view doesn’t account for the fact that different fields such as medical physics and astronomy have their own internal inertia and way of doing things, such that progress is directed to certain areas. Even throwing more money at them will not fulfill a need which is not fully perceived until the technology suddenly becomes available from elsewhere, and people realise what they can do with it. The web is a great example of this, and one the particle physicists can rightly dine off of for the next hundred years.

      • The happy ending in the ‘etc’ I had in mind was that the ESA contract would lead to future income generation for the industry bod, but it couldn’t have happened unless the industry bod had been talking to an astronomer in the first place.

        The UK is building spacecraft and instruments for astronomy, which governments fund as a way of fostering the multi-billion pound space industry, and we are trying to justify having astronomers on call. If there isn’t a way to tie these things together, aren’t we doing something wrong?

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