Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal

August 24, 2011

I just finished my first ever sea level UKIDSS observing run on UKIRT. I emerged with a weird mixture of feelings…

Science. I gave an afternoon talk to JAC staff – not just astronomers, but secretaries, engineers, etc – which meant I had to really explain what we have been doing with a thousand nights on their telescope. They soaked it up, goggle eyed – distant quasars, tiny failed stars, vast clusters of galaxies. It made me realise we really are doing something good. I showed them the UKIRT publication history, which Gary Davis made. I think you can see that doing an ambitious survey has been good for UKIRT.

Refereed publications resulting in part or whole from UKIRT observations, 1992-2010.

Money. UKIRT is now very cheap to run. Most of the time there are no observers at all – just a Telescope Operator and an eavesdropping web page. No observer plane tickets. No Hale Pohaku bills. Much smaller support infrastructure in Hilo. If something goes phut, tough. It can wait until next time somebody can get up the mountain. Of course STFC love this, because UKIRT is still putting out press releases but for much less money ! But before they decide other telescopes can do this .. Its possible because a massive survey with a single instrument is a very simple problem; because they have dedicated, skilled, and experienced TOs; and because over many years UKIRT has slowly ironed out its technical issues. It just works slightly better every year.

People. Well it was cool talking to JAC staff, and seeing those familiar TOs. The TOs love the new sea-level ops. Brain works. Less travel overhead. They can buy their own snacks. They have more responsibility, and have risen to that challenge. But the bare bones UKIRT has a downside. People got fired. I had dinner with old chum Frossie. She wrote the Query Tool, but now she spends her evenings listening to the frogs.

Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal. Mostly, I loved the new observing style, for the same reason as the TOs – the brain worked, I could come and go, have dinner wherever I liked. But of course I missed the mountain, especially the mystical experience of descending from the roof of the world at dawn. Also I love walking round the dome, placing my hand on the huge cold metal machine, and understanding that this is all real. Not a computer game. Photons have travelled for 13 billion years from that direction there and got swallowed up inside here. Of course this is very groovy for me, but does this mystical pleasure produce better science for the taxpayer’s money ? I doubt it.

History. I found myself flooded with memories of 25 years of going on UKIRT runs . Somehow, things that have changed make you even more sensitive to things that haven’t. This must be why I found myself taking a photo of my favourite sign at the Hilo Bay Hotel, aka Uncle Billy’s. It says “In case of tidal wave : (1) Stay calm (2) Pay hotel bill (3) Run like hell”.

The elasticated office

August 17, 2011

I am in the airport hotel in Honolulu, fiddling with my laptop. No hang on, that sounds all wrong. I am moving files on my computer and adjusting this and that. It strikes me that my computer is a lot more organised than my office, which is packed with unfindable pieces of paper at almost neutron star density. Why is that ?

Meanwhile, doing some web-meandering (so much more accurate than “surfing”) I came across this : an amusingly weird physically hyperlinked book. The pages are joined by coloured pieces of thread. Well, I am months out of date of course but hey ho. Then I remembered my great invention, which I have failed to patent after several years of boring people with the idea at coffee time : the elasticated office. Permit me to explain.

In my physical office, when I start a project I pluck things out of folders and filing cabinet sections, and make a working pile. For some days I work work work and the pile grows. Then, as I realise I need to start something else, I become conflicted. I know that I ought to put all those things away. But … the new project is of course terribly urgent. You know what wins. I put off the unsplicing and start a new pile. The inexorable result is a set of randomised piles of documents spread confusingly round the office. Entropy has done its thing yet again.

Now … when working on my computer there are no piles. I don’t move any files, you see. I open a file, clickety-click, and when I am done, I click that nice friendly X and — zip — it closes, and goes back where it came from ! On my Mac I can even make virtual piles, again without moving the docs, and when I am done I just delete the whole thing.

So… I suddenly realised what I need back in the physical world. Every paper document in every filing cabinet section should be on a piece of elastic ! I pull it out, read it, and when I am done, just let go, and — zip — it flies back to where it came from !! Bingo !

I realise there may be topological issues here, but I am working on it.

Riots, Purpose, and Science

August 11, 2011

Back from my hols. Brain getting back in gear. Pouring with rain here in the Burgh. So much grimmer than that nice Cornish drizzle.

So whats happening ? Astronomically not a lot. Courtesy of the inimitable Crowther, there is an interesting analysis of the Australia vs South Africa battle for SKA, from a financial point of view.

Meanwhile, in other news… London’s burning, and Manchester too. Its all a bit depressing, and its tempting to pontificate on The Cause Of It All, but best not to. My opinions are no better than anybody else’s. But listening to the debate did pluck a philosophical nerve…

(A) Some say we have to understand why young people are doing this – they are poor, disenfranchised, bored, etc. (B) Others say – no ! We mustn’t look for excuses, its just selfish and criminal. Now, the citizen in me goes for B, but the scientist in me goes for A. The problem is that people tend to blend the concepts of  reason and excuse. It should be possible to stand outside a system, and say objectively ” ahh.. here are the reasons it happened”, and still be able to go back inside and say “I don’t care why. Has to stop”.

So here is the philosophical tickler. Sometime recently (lost the link..) Hawking provocatively suggested that there is no need for God, because Science is a self-contained explanation of the Universe. It seems to me that big daddies in the sky with beards, or creation myths, or all-pervading spirits or essences, ain’t really the point. What is outside Science, that patently seems to exist, and is an everyday human fact of life, is purpose or intention. In fact for science to work, you more or less have to switch it off, as I sketched above.

Aristotle had causation by purpose (teleology) as one of his four categories of cause. But we modern scientists hold no truck with that. (What is this obsession with holding trucks ?) Does this mean that Science is an incomplete world view ? Or does it in fact suggest that intention is an illusion ? Of course this is standard Philosophy 101 stuff, all tied up with free will vs determinism etc. But whats the gut instinct of the working scientist ?