Admissions : Scottish Paranoia episode 2,317

October 31, 2011

News from UCAS this morning about the idea of post-result applications triggered a Scottish grump. I am not Scottish, but as soon as you have lived here for a bit you develop the small-partner paranoia thing. You are watching TV and some Holywood starlet plonks down  on the chat show couch and the host says “Welcome to English TV” and the starlet says “I love England !”. You start waving at the TV and shouting HELLO we are here too !

Anyhoo. So anyway. UCAS are flying a kite, wondering if things could be a bit simpler if “UK university applications” were made after A-level results were known. The problem of course is that the timing is a bit tight. Maybe A-levels will have to be three weeks earlier. Listening to this on Beeb Radio 4, I was assuming that any moment somebody would mention the fact that Scottish students applying to Scottish Universities can apply on the basis of their Highers results while they are still doing their Advanced Highers year, and a large fraction get offers on the basis of their Highers. Sometimes you put a condition on the Advanced Higher , but a large fraction at least are sorted in advance. So it seems like we already solved this problem.

Not a dicky bird. The guardian has an interestingly different spin on it, but still no Scottish perspective.

US astronomy crumbling ?

October 25, 2011

Many of us were rather perturbed to receive the latest edition of the NOAO newsletter, NOAO Currents, warning the community that KPNO or even CTIO as well might be forced into closure by the dire state of the NSF budget. They have started a community discussion. UK readers should bear in mind that unlike our situation, the operation and the funding is from two separate bodies (AURA and NSF) so the psycho-dynamics of lobbying is a little different.

NSF is indeed in a tight spot, as described in the talk by Jim Ulvestad at a recent meeting of the NSF A&A advisory committee. The Decadal Survey (aka NWNH) assumed 3% growth but actually NSF astro is taking a 4% cut this year. NSF as a whole is roughly flat cash The OMB is asking all agencies for 5-10% cuts next year. The current top priority is making a success of ALMA; the top priority new start, LSST, probably won’t have the funding faucet turned on until 2015; and whichever is chosen out of TMT and GMT won’t get NSF money until at least 2020. Jim doesn’t say “we will have to trash Kitt Peak” but NOAO ain’t stupid and are getting their groundswell started early.

I heard a rumour of a rumour that NSF are punishing astronomy because their budget cut was caused by the Senate putting JWST back in to the budget. But I don’t think this is correct. The NSF asked for $7.8bn; the House bill gave them NSF $6.9bn; the Senate bill gave them $6.7bn. So they are both suggesting fierce cuts regardless of the JWST thing. Maybe some US reader can explain how the reconciliation happens, but presumably they will end up with 6.8bn or thereabouts.

To fill in the picture, the House bill gave JWST zilch, and the Senate bill gave them $593M this year, with a capped total of $8.7bn. In that Senate bill, total NASA science is 5.1bn – thats Earth Sci 1.76; Planetary 1.50; Astrophysics 0.68; JWST 0.53; Heliophysics 0.62. The astro 680M includes HST at 98.3M, SOFIA at 84M, and NUSTAR at 11.9M. Interestingly, it looks like JWST hasn’t particularly damaged the rest of NASA astrophysics that much. The hit has come in other NASA programs. NASA as a whole is given $17.9bn, half a billion down from last year. So non-science programs are being hit hard.

Meanwhile, other gossip mongerers of my acquaintance are fretting over some of the words in the Senate bill. For example, it exhorts NSF to take a decision this year between TMT and GMT, but includes the words “… to develop that telescope on domestic soil …”. So. telescopes to be sited in Chile, as opposed to Hawaii, need not apply ? Hmm. ”Develop” ain’t the same as “built on”…

Enough of the paranoia I say ! Of course just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

Radio Renaissance : where’s the dog ?

October 24, 2011

Radio astronomy is undergoing a renaissance. How did this happen ?

This question is on my mind as I have just returned from sitting on an evaluation comitttee for ASTRON, the Dutch institute for radio astronomy, home of WSRT and LOFAR. Of course it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say anything about that review, but it won’t hurt to say how exciting it was to actually visit LOFAR in the flesh. When I say flesh I mean mud and wire of course. Its a fascinating mixture of the crude and high-tech. The latter is course all the electronics and fibres and giant computers and software. The crude bit  is the antennae. From pictures I had thought the high-band antennae were strange gleaming tiles, but actually they turned out to be tarpaulin covering polystyrene boxes containing bits of metal that looked like they had been cut out with a Stanley knife. I love it.

Anyhoo. With LOFAR, EVLA, and e-MERLIN happening right now, ASKAP and MeerKAT on the way, and SKA driving its way through the funding agencies, stuff is happening in radio astronomy. A few years back I used to like visiting Jodrell Bank because it was so delightfully 1950s. It was like stepping into an episode of Quatermass and the Pit. Now the chaps at Jodders have upped sticks and moved into a gleaming new building in the centre of Manchester. The radio astronomers themselves used to seem like gentleman amateurs. Now they are all ambitious and thrusting. The SKA project is a tightly controlled PR machine. (I could tell stories but I won’t). Crumbs – how did that all happen ?

Well, they got their act together – scientifically, technically, and politically. But what surprises me is this. Usually what drives scientific changes is the availability of new technology. We all like these days to boast about knowledge transfer, and radio astronomy is nicely embedded in telecommunications technology of course – but exciting things happen when the technology is transferred from industry or the military to science, rather than the other way round. Examples that spring to mind : IR astronomy jumped into the new age when IR arrays fell off the back of the military lorry; optical astronomy was transformed after the CCD was invented; X-ray astronomy got serious when astronomers learned how the guys at Lincoln Labs could make three-axis stabilised spacecraft that could point. What was the new technology we jumped on to make the radio astronomy revolution ?

Put another way… normally we are the flea on the dog. Where’s the dog ?

STFC : White Smoke

October 18, 2011

It seems the Cardinals have completed their lock in and we finally have a new CEO for STFC : John Womersley, aka Wommers. I shan’t mention the dark rumours I had been hearing before this announcement. Telescoping Peter has already emitted a post, but I got to this late as I have been exploring deepest Drenthe all day. More of this anon.

Meanwhile. Well. Dead pleased. JW is an occasional contributor to this blog, so he’s obviously a fine chap. And he has excellent taste in boots, if a something of predilection for dark shirts.

As the STFC announcement explains, Keef is orff early to levitate the space sector, or something like that.

Enough from me.

Greek Astronomy Trouble

October 17, 2011

Here is another astro-funding crisis… The National Observatory of Athens is apparently threatened with a 30% cut in state funding, and convert it into a private institution. There is a petition you can sign here. (I was alerted to this via a tweet from Astronomy Blogger Stu.) I don’t have any more detail.

NOA is five institutes in one, doing much more than regular astrophysics, including the rather groovy NESTOR underwater neutrino detector.

I suppose given the dire problems Greece is in, this is not an entirely surpising development. But it is very depressing and extremely short sighted. Science and technology is investment for the future, not luxury expenditure.

I signed the petition.

Goodbye World

October 17, 2011

Another sad day for the computing world – a few days back Dennis Ritchie died. Yes I know I am a bit slow off the mark. This wasn’t a mega-news story like the death of Steve Jobs, but you can find a few news articles  at the BBC, the Guardian, the Telegraph, and Tech Crunch. Of course the public at large knew almost nothing about Ritchie, but he was more important to the creation of the modern world than Jobs. He invented the C programming language and co-created Unix with Ken Thompson. These things underly the Internet, the Mac, the iPhone and Android. There is a straight line from C to Java to C# so even Microsoft is not a Unix-free zone.

I have in front of me my copy of “The C programming language” by Kernighan and Ritchie. One of the many remarkable things is that it is an inch thinner than all my other computing books. It is a paradigm of clarity.

Apparently the news was first broken by Google’s Rob Pike. Here is his very nice follow-on posting on Google Plus.

Rob Pike’s posting and the Tech Crunch article have lots of comments from distressed geeks. Somebody said inventing Unix is like inventing air. I think even folks who hanker after VMS would agree that in practice we all breathe Unix. Ny favourite comment from the Tech Crunch stream was from Mike Church in Malvern, who said :

#include <stdio.h>

int main(int argc, char** argv).

fprintf(stdout, “Goodbye World!\n”);.


Stay Hungry, Stay Foolish

October 6, 2011

Steve Jobs is dead. Headline news on Radio 4 as I woke up this morning. It feels deep. This is not because of the loss of a technology genius – hell, we all know Apple wouldn’t exist without Woz, the Mac was really Jeff Raskin, Pixar was really Jeff Lasseter etc. Its not just that he was an amazing business visionary – as Jonathan Fay tweeted this morning, “Steve Jobs championed design, pushed the limits of his people, and believed in dreams long enough to see them become reality.”

No. Its the story, the arc of a life lived in public that we all shared – the kid in the garage, the billion dollar success, the casting out into the darkness, the crossing of the Rubicon back into Rome as victor, the battle against cancer. Orbiting Frog quoted from his 2005 commencement address at Stanford. “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

I hadn’t seen this clip before. Its fifteen minutes but well worth a look. He tells Stanford students that the best thing he ever did was to drop out of college, and the second best thing was to get fired and re-think life. And then he tells these bright young things, on a sunny day, at the start of their adventure in Life, that the really important thing is to remember that you will die. He also recalls the Whole Earth Catalog (remember that ?). On the back cover of the final edition it had a picture of a country road, and the words “Stay Young, Stay Foolish”.

If you want a  lighter  Steve moment,  try this.  As ever, timing is all.