Particle Astrophysics and the Sponge House of Doom

January 31, 2011
The Sponge House of Doom

Culross Palace, aka the Sponge House of Doom

As the bard said, the best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft awry. Of course, if you are the Princes Serendip, ye gang doon that path, and find a Grand Adventure.

Number one child is home, on a strange St Andrews style post exam holiday. Californian boyfriend is here too. He expressed a desire to locate Blair Castle, as it might have some connection with his family. A click or two later, Google Maps had us sorted. It was suprisingly close – just over the Forth Road Bridge and turn left. We stepped on the gas and headed towards his heritage.. Well, omitting some tiresome details, an hour or so later we had discovered there are in fact two Blair Castles. Blair-Castle-A , home of Clan Murray, is a 13th century monster brooding over the edge of the Highlands. It is crawling with suits of armour and tourists and so forth. Blair-Castle-B , where we had pitched up, is a Regency Villa, sandwiched between tracts of decayed industrial wasteland, and since 1927 has been a convalescent home for Scottish miners. You can read about its history here, but you can’t go in.

However, we found ourselves on the edge of Culross, which turned out to be the most stunning town : a 16th century time capsule, staring across the Forth at the Grangemouth refinery. It is crammed full of perfect ancient ghosts. The best is Culross Palace, which manages to look simultaneously beautiful and kinda like a giant orange sponge cake. It was shut, so instead the kids fantasised about being swallowed up by the sponge house of doom and never emerging. Next we went to the pub, and then as darkness fell, we roamed around the crumbling Abbey and spooked ourselves. A marvelous day and all by happy accident.

I found myself ruminating on a conversation with M who had complained that particle astrophysics is taking over our subject and killing it, especially in the US. To get big money these days you have to be doing a giant physics experiment with your telescope. You can’t just aim to understand stars, or galaxies, or quasars. You have to be claiming to measure w, or testing strong field gravity. All very nice, but these things are very expensive. As we head towards the funding wall, all we can afford is one or two giant physics experiments.

Astronomy has had a big impact on our understanding of the laws of physics, but, M claimed, this has never been as a result of naive experimental intention. It has always emerged as a happy accident from studying the contents and behaviour of the cosmos – universal gravity from the orbit of the moon, quantum tunneling from the burning of the stars, dark matter from the rotation of galaxies, dark energy from trying to measure q0 and so on.  What we need to do is to encourage diversity, try to understand our surroundings, and keep an open mind.

Of course, that may be a hard sell to funding panels.