I am that young man

November 17, 2010

Allen Sandage just died. An article in the New York Times is here. Not someone I knew or indeed ever met, but he has always hovered in my psyche, like he has for most astronomers my age. In 1961 he founded modern cosmology by writing  “The ability of the 200inch telescope to discriminate between selected world models” and in 1962, with Eggen and Lynden-Bell, he kicked off the subject of galaxy formation by writing “Evidence from the motions of old stars that the Galaxy collapsed“.  Anyone who can write two such epochal papers in successive years ought to have a warm glow for the rest of their lives. Maybe he did, but of course he didn’t sit back; he pursued his program relentlessly for decades.

In some ways I miss the old days when the warring H0=52 and H0=85 camps would have bust ups at every conference, led by Sandage and his arch-rival Gerard De Vaucouleurs. A well known astronomer, who may or may not be Richard Ellis, once told me that sometime in the 1990s, by which time Sandage was 70ish and De Vaucouleurs was 80ish,  he went to yet another conference where each camp was convinced of its rectitude. Richard claims he stood up and said “I am getting fed up with these debates. This subject needs some young man to come in and sort things out”. (Pardon the sexism.) Apparently De Vaucouleurs swelled his chest and said “Indeed. I am zat young man.”

(Richard can feel free to unclaim the story.)

So I just checked out those two classic papers. What really hit me was that the classic 1961 paper has 375 citations. Well that’s pretty good of course, but plenty of people these days clock up papers with more citations than that. Certainly wouldn’t guarantee you a Faculty position at a good university these days…

Scariness continued

November 11, 2010

Apologies for radio silence. Somehow I foolishly agreed to teach two new courses simultaneously without noticing the load would peak about the same time as Astronomy Grants Panel Business, and just before finishing a major EU proposal. AAAGGGHHH.

I suppose the obvious news of the day for your friendly neighbourhood AGP chairman is the outcome of STFC’s Grant Mechanism Review. However, that discussion is well underway on Peter’s blog, so I suggest you check it out there.

Instead, I will alert you to a depressing news article from the New York Times. JWST is one third over budget and at least a year behind schedule. In my previous “scary stories“post, our ESA correspondent Mark MacGuttural-noise stressed that this was not requirements creep as Nature had reported. The new report seems to confirm this. Management cock-up is the theory of the day.

As Mark also said, cancelling JWST at this stage would be a bad idea. We would not get the money for something else in astronomy instead. Instead, we maybe just have to let the over-runs eat about half the clear blue water that the Decadal Survey identified as available for a nice new Explorer programme etc. Talk about rock and hard place.

But could it happen ? Worryingly, the splashing of over-runs maybe increases the likelihood of cancellation, because the sunk costs are now a smaller fraction of the total… about 1/3, similar to the state of SSC when the plug was pulled in 1993.

I guess we shouldn’t be smug in Europe. Our Big Thing is ELT, for which the currrent level of ESO subscription will cover about a third. Ahh, but … then we get Brazil to join, which is a fair bit more, and then we ask everybody to just ever so slightly increase their subscriptions, and then … umm… then… national agencies pay for more stuff inside their own countries, and then… err… good lord, is that the time ?

Time share in TMT anyone ?