Sad news in La Palma

March 31, 2011

Mike Watson just pointed me to some sad news from La Palma – legendary taxi driver Lionel has died.

Anybody who has observed on the Isaac Newton Group, or any other La Palma telescope, will remember Lionel. He was always the guy who drove you up the mountain to the Residencia, and sometimes other places too. He drove alarmingly fast but with perfect efficiency and was a friendly guy who loved feeling a part of La Palma’s famous observatory. La Palma is so achingly beautiful, its almost a mystical experience travelling up the mountain. The addition of large centrifugal force round those beatiful bends just made it all the more memorable. A trip down with Kieron Leech once took several times as long as normal, as Kieron had to get out to be sick once every three or four bends. Lionel smiled at me and shrugged.

Any other stories welcome.

UKIRT output : best ever

March 17, 2011

Just had a fun day in Milton Keynes. No, really. I have been here today giving a seminar but also had some very interesting chats, and got a tour of the Planetary Sciences Research Institute, where they have lots of fun kit. I must admit I was a bit perturbed when Simon Green showed me a historical piece of equipment in a glass case and said that it had Colin Pillinger’s lip marks all over it. He then explained that he meant that Colin had blown the glass tubes himself.

Anyhoo, got back to my hotel to find a most marvelous email from Gary Davis, Director of JAC. It seems that UKIRT, that ancient useless telescope that clearly we should have closed by now, produced more papers last year than ever before. Check it out here.

Hem. Just a tad to do with UKIDSS of course…

Keith 1 Profs 1

March 16, 2011

Just read a tweet from Rob Ivison :

some people won’t like it, certainly won’t acknowledge it, but it was a very good performance from Keith Mason in select committee hearing

Watch the show for yourself, but I find myself in agreement. More or less. The Profs were fine too, but Keith put the ball in the net. (Unlike Chelsea. Oh crikey, what am I doing, pretending I know about football ?) I noticed Ian Corbett sitting at the back. He used to be the spider at the centre of the web. I wonder what he was thinking ?

Here are a few bullet points. From the assembled profs :

  • Things are better, but starting from a low base
  • We need a stable environment
  • If any money becomes spare, put it in grants
  • The real problem is we spend only 1.7% of GDP on R&D. What happened to that target of 2.5% ? Oh, yeah, that was the last government
  • This overinvestment thing : yes there was a pulse but that was the joining fee. Nobody said we had to close stuff. And anyway we have closed stuff.
  • Instrumentation re-balance to labs : bad idea… it works now, don’t change it
  • Those Northern Telescopes : fairly cheap, although we reserve the right to disagree with each other’s numbers

Next, edited highlights from His Keefness and The Smith :

  • Should STFC fund all of outreach ? Don’t be silly
  • Northern Telescopes : yes we agree that would be good and can confirm we are trying to do this; but times are tight; lets be realistic
  • Ahem. Permit to read from 2001 Council Minutes. Says to pay for ESO we will need to withdraw from AAT, JCMT, UKIRT, and ING by the end of the decade. Hope thats a bit clearer.
  • Do all the tech work in the labs ? I would definitely disagree with that. Its not what we said. Permit me to read from the Delivery Plan.
  • Astronomy is important to the Nation. Do we have too many astronomers ? Absolutely not. That spending feeds back in to the economy. We are nowhere near the point of diminishing returns.
  • Grants ? Err, mumble, mutter. (Almost let a goal in there.)
  • Scientist balance on Council ? Same as BBSRC actually.
  • Would I do anything different if I started again ? I sleep easy at night, knowing we did the best we possibly could. (Oops. Candide-ian own goal at the very last minute).

So. It was a draw, but Keef scored both goals.

However. This Council minute thing. As it happens, I have a copy of the Council papers from Dec 2001. (I was on Council at the time). I can’t find this statement in the actual minutes, but it is referred to obliquely. However, amongst the papers was a copy of the “Strategic Plan for Astronomy” given to Science Committee on Nov 27/8 2001. It does indeed propose saving £5M/year by withdrawing from those telescopes, on the assumption of a flat budget.  But But But we have pulled out of Gemini, saving more than that… and after 2001, the Labour government increased science spending by a lot. So all that history is pretty irrelevant. Where are we now and what can we afford ?

Whats that spluttering noise ? Peter ?

Bankers replace Bombers

March 14, 2011

Back in my yoof, when we wanted to make the point that something noble but apparently expensive like science or education or foreign aid was actually Rather Cheap if you Looked At It The Right Way, the standard unit of comparison was the B52 bomber. Why, we could have that telescope for little more than the annual repairs on one bomber  ! Now, thanks to Jocelyn Bell-Burnell (Praise Be Upon Her) we have a new unit of evil : the Banker’s Bonus. At last week’s hearing of the Select Committee of Science and Technology, when our Profs were asked what it would cost to keep those northern telescopes going, Roger D said “2-3M”, meaning per year. Jocelyn B-B said “a banker’s bonus”.

I liked this, so I gave it another outing at a rather fun public event on Sunday. Four astronomers were given ten minutes to make a pitch for their favourite project in front of a random selection of punters in the science activities gallery of the national museum in Chambers Street in Edinburgh. Said punters were given Monopoly money and voted for their favourite by putting money in different boxes. Very jolly. Round-1 was me pitching for LSST versus Catherine Heymans pitching for Euclid. Well, she had dark matter and dark energy, and did amusing things with beach balls, but I had killer rocks in space, and you can’t beat that, so I won.

On my last powerpoint slide, I told them how much it costs – about $800M to build and then run for ten years. A full UK share might be £50M (unfortunately not looking likely now..). Still a lot… but spread over seventeen years (start in a year, six years to build, ten years of operations) thats 2.9M per year. Guess what. A banker’s bonus.

So when they added up the monopoly money, Euclid had 1.2M and LSST had 2.4M. What a spooky coincidence …

Of course, really, I was hoping someone in the audience would come to the front afterwards and say “Hi, I’m a banker, and I’ve been wondering what to do with my bonus”.

No such luck.

Get ready for Episode Two by the way.

Cute kids report

March 9, 2011

So how was today’s show at the Select Committee hearing ? The main thing to say is that in fact the genuine young persons were pretty damned cute, in sense B as opposed to sense A – i.e. mentally keen, shrewd. After a bit, it worried me that this was in fact a weakness of the hearing, if they wanted to find out what would make young people more attracted to physical science. These young people were already physics fans. Anyhoo. Here are some bullet point impressions :

  • Kids apparently value active research participation, rather than (just) TV science  programmes. But as I said, these were already fans..
  • I loved the lad who said he was hooked one day in a kind of  epiphany : seeing the glare from a car he suddenly realised those photons had just travelled 8 minutes from the Sun, bounced off the car, and entered his eyeball. Man thats not just physics – thats Zen.
  • Some of them didn’t know UKSA had been created… but one did because “they rejected a lot of people from my school for work experience”
  • Maggie Aderin-Pocock had her kid there … that was so cool.
  • Maggie stressed that some people can communicate and some can’t… she quoted a school who said “we had a physicist come and talk last year and after that fewer people wanted to do physics”
  • Jim Al Khalili said that we want real science not girls in bikinis blowing up caravans
  • Jocelyn and Roger both said that  STFC is now communicating a lot better, and they are trying hard, but – there still aren’t enough scientists on Council; STFC has structural issues; and there are “some crazinesses they still haven’t thought through”.
  • Roger was polite but firm on the issue of whether there was a deliberate overinvestment in astronomy in the past
  • Roger was very concerned about the suggestion that construction might be concentrated into the labs, rather than university groups. Students have to be trained or the instrumentation field will become moribund, he said.
  • Asked if  we have to cut costs to pay for ESO, Roger and Jocelyn said yes, but we already have : we pulled out of AAT; we reduced membership of WHT and cut operating cost of UKIRT; and of course we pulled out of Gemini. Roger said nobody said we’d have to completely close all  Northern Hemisphere  observatories.
  • Finally, when asked how much extra resource was needed to keep those Northern observatories open, Roger said  2-3M. Jocelyn said “a banker’s bonus”.

Well thats what I got. You can still see the video at the CSC website.

Bring on the cute kids

March 8, 2011

Enough of this astronomical puzzle fest. Its time to get back to a spot of astro-political fretting. Tomorrow (today by the time most of you read this) is the first sitting of the latest STFC show trial, aka the enquiry into astronomy and particle physics by the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Some of you may have perused the transcript of the Jan 19th session, when the committee grilled various Research Council CEOs. I am sure you loved the bit where Keef says that there was an agreement that astro funding was temporarily artificially high after joining ESO, and was planned to come down again. Also the bit where  Keith says that STFC facilities like Diamond and ISIS would be running at full capacity. Maybe you liked even more Keef’s follow-on letter explaining that by full capacity, he meant absolutely fully the level of reduced capacity that Council had agreed. For all you Fawlty Towers fans, I thought this was the “oh, Harold Ro-BINS” moment of the show. I should just add that I am v.glad I am not doing that job.

Tomorrow is not yet the whingeing profs day. Its the how-do-we-inspire-the-kids day, with a succession of actual young persons having their say. There are a couple of Profs lined up (Roger Davies and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell) but I am sure they won’t be whingeing.

If you want to get in practice for a bit more heavyweight fretting, try reading the written submissions by all sorts of good folk. For the impatient, here is a quick summary :

Various nuclear physicists : Ahem. We notice you didn’t ask about nuclear physics. But we are going to tell you anyway.

George E : Keith-must-go ! And more scientists on Council !! (George has an amazing personal quote from Michael Sterling : senior academics in receipt of STFC grants have a conflict of interest and should not sit on Council…)

Various astronomers : We still need the North !

A few particle physicists : Hello ? Anybody there ? Is this thing on ?

Roger The Prezz : So. This planned overfunding thing. Not what we recall, I’m afraid. Got any evidence ?

Mike B : Too many astronomers ? Err, nope. Number per GDP unit pretty average for Europe ole bean.

Em R-squared : Well ok, you’ve followed some of my recommendations, but I was pretty clear about this Northern Hemisphere thing..

John P : do the sums right and you will see we have been cut in half. Some of it has gone to ESA, and some of it has been swallowed by RAL. Diamond and ISIS have suffered too, but they would have suffered even more without the merger.

Actually, if you want to read just one letter, read John’s. Here is my favourite quote :

In complaining about loss of funding, scientists risk radiating a sense of entitlement to public money, and this is an impression we must avoid. But what we can legitimately demand is stability: society needs to decide what it wishes to spend on relatively abstract activities like astronomy and particle physics, and then stick to its bargain. Young scientists of great talent will plan accordingly, and some will choose to dedicate their lives and careers to a given subject, and to pursuing it in the UK. But no-one can plan sensibly in the fact of a 50% cut; unless we start to reverse it, the damage will be felt for decades.


A dim glimmer

March 3, 2011

As I write this, I am sitting in Sheffield’s fine Victorian railway station, on my way home from visiting the astronomers here. Yesterday I sang for my supper, giving a double bill seminar on the radio background and on the big blue bump. Supper duly followed, and was exceeding pleasant. The Sheffield group is a small but lively one. As normal, the postdocs were worried about job prospects and the academics were moaning about writing exam questions. To quote P.C. : “I love my job but I hate writing exam questions.” With you there, Professor C.

The Crowther mentioned my recent blog post about how the Universe is almost empty. He said he likes to set his classes ballpark estimate exercises. He tried one out on me. You can have a go too. Its quite good to start by using your instinct to make a guess, before gathering a few facts to do the quick mental calculation. That way you can get your frisson of surprise. Suppose, said Paul, you take the material of the Earth and stretch it out from here to the Sun – how wide would that rope be ? His students guess a wide range of answers, but usually around a mm. Give it a go.

Here is another one, for which I will give you the answer – how powerful is a one kg accreting black hole ? As we all know, quasars are immensely luminous because they have supermassive black holes at their hearts – those accreting black holes are the most efficient energy sources we know. We are talking big numbers. At the Eddington limit, that billion solar mass black hole can be radiating up to 10^47 erg/s. When I first came to giving an undergraduate course with some of this stuff in, I felt duty bound to do things in SI units. So I got a formula for the Eddington limit : L_Edd=6.37M. Wuh ? A one kg black hole gives me 6 Watts ? My electric fire can do better than that ! My electric fire is only a few kg,  but it gives me 2 kW.

Then comes the epiphany. You realise that accretion is not the slightest bit efficient per unit of mass of accretor ; what is impressive is the energy per unit mass of the accretee. To get 2kW out and so heat your bedsit, you need a black hole of at least 314 kg – about as big as two motorbikes. However, once you have it, the rate you have to burn fuel as it were, i.e. the rate at which you need to drop matter into the black hole, is about 2 x 10^-13 kg/s; one kg of fuel would last you roughly 140,000 years… I now leave it as an exercise for the reader how long a kg of coal would give that same 2kW. Scaling up to the most luminous quasars, you need to eat about 20 solar masses a year. Peanuts.

Then it made me think again about that electric bar fire. Its not really producing 2kW all by itself. It is plugged in and sucking that energy out of a giant power station miles away. Its really a similar story. First you need a vast power factory, and all the surrounding infrastructure. Only once you have it can you burn some fuel and give the illusion of that tiny fire producing energy. Likewise, before you can get that accretion energy goodness, you somehow have to assemble those billion solar masses. But thats another story…