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.