New Year Mutterings

December 31, 2011

Another year is racing past the finishing post. Queenie’s Birthday Honours List  is out.  Not bad for science overall, with  Knighthoods for selllotape and pencil heroes Geim and Novoselov.Weaker than usual for astronomy and particle physics. I could only find an MBE for Derek Raine – well deserved, but awarded for services to education, not science. (Embarassing note : in the original version of this post I had some others but thats because somehow I had downloaded last year’s list as well.. Doh.)

Of course I have the usual confused mixture of approval and discomfort. Its good that public service is recognised; the MBE seems particularly important, as it rewards those all the way up and down the social tree, rather than just giving an extra bauble to those already at the top of the tree. But on the other hand it seems a throwback to a fusty and repressive past. Knighthoods, Orders, Empires ? The nobility only exists because a thousand years ago some people were better at bullying, greed, and violence than others. But hey ho thats the way of the world. At least now we have community workers, and they can be valued and rewarded. With a medal. Not a banker-style bonus of course.

I guess these thoughts are sharper than usual as the world is in a strange state. Europe and America about to plunge into recession again. Ordinary people in the Arab world and in Russia openly challenging their rulers. Tea Party nutters showing no sign of backing off.

I find myself more confused about politics than ever before. Communism failed and real people didn’t want it. But now Capitalism is failing too. Is there a genuine Third Way ? Maybe what we want is actual genuine Free Enterprise Capitalism, as opposed to the fake Capitalism of the last thirty years. Can we in fact allow people to trade freely, without the need for “trade agreements” stacked in favour of rich countries, invasions to control resources, and the IMF dictating to elected governments ? Well ok, a chap is allowed to dream at Hogmanay.

Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. State investment in science and technology makes rational sense in an imperialist economy. Its not clear what would happen in a genuine free market system.

Oh. On a cheerier note, I just passed the fifth birthday of the blog !


Alien Seas and the Nature of Science

December 22, 2011

Went to John Lewis yesterday. A subterranean memory emerged. When I was nineteen I used to get a strange pleasure wandering through the John Lewis Department Store. It was an eery world, detached from my own. I would get a buzz drifting past thousands upon thousands of things I had no desire  for whatsoever. Vast acres of the uninteresting. It was like sailing on an alien sea, gazing upon lifeforms and liquid shapes I would never understand.

Well, thats the smugness of youth I guess. Now of course I wander into John Lewis and within four yards I am picking something up thinking “mmm, that would be useful”. How things have changed. Over the same thirty eight year period, I have noticed that my waistline has slowly but systematically increased. This correlation must mean something. It clearly proves that the desire for household items has a calorific effect.

Spotting correlations is what science is all about ! Did you know that in the twentieth century there was a clear correlation between the average size of feet in China, and the price of fish in Billingsgate market ? There is as yet no good theory for that one. On the other hand, I had a friend who trained spiders to obey his voice commands. Then he would pull their legs off, and found that they no longer obeyed the commands. As he explained to me, this proves that spiders have their ears in their legs.

In a similar vein, a paper about high redshift galaxies I read the other day showed very clearly that … oh, hang on, is that the time ? Must dash. I am sure you can complete the example and several more of your own.

Cosmic Treat

December 21, 2011

Thanks to the nice folks at Snag Films, I learn that yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death. You can watch the first episode of the famous COSMOS series here. It starts with an advert, but thats why its free folks.

Carl Sagan ain’t as pretty as Brian Cox, and I would say Brian is actually better at making abstract things simple and concrete; but no-one can beat Sagan at the cosmic poetry.

Astronomical Isolation

December 14, 2011

So what will the euro-zone veto fuss do to astronomy ? Anything ?

I have just been checking for new service data on a ESO-VLT project I have. My student is doing stuff with ESA Herschel data. Lots of us are glowing happily and emailing our Italian and French friends because Euclid got selected. I just submitted another Euro-VO FP7 proposal with a variety of European chums. At project meetings, being “Europe” as opposed to “the UK” is often crucial. The Americans take us much more seriously. Hey, we are all European astronomers now. Aren’t we ?

Joining ESO was a difficult debate in the UK. Many UK astronomers have always felt more comfortable with our US and Australian friends. They speak our language (more or less), and have a kind of rugged and ambitious approach that we like. On the other hand, our French and Italian friends sometimes seem more, you know, sophisticated. In other words we are typical Brits. We can’t decide if we are cultured Europeans or part of some grand Brittanic gung ho civilisation. Even as I write, my instincts are mostly with ESO and ESA, but I am also part of a lobby thats just dying to be part of LSST.

Right now, European politicians and newspapers seem to be saying “thank goodness ! We never liked them anyway !” Are our European astronomy chums secretly irritated with us all this time ? I should point out that neither ESO nor ESA are anything to do with the EU. They are independent treaty organisations. Nothing structural or automatic ensues from the Eurozone situation. But it does make you wonder what they think of us..

Rock and Roll will never die (just f-f-fade away)

December 7, 2011

I just got interviewed in A&G. You can see it online here .

Old Leicester chum Watto says he is getting a T-shirt made referring to the big-photons episode. Another old Leicester chum, Grimmers, aka @compactdwarf, referred to the interview as a “centrefold” which left me feeling a tad uncomfortable, but there we go. It also sparked off a debate with my grad student @wordled_muds, aka Jack The Lad. I thought I would expose the argument here and see what you think.

My children tell me that online social networking is the great cultural contribution of their generation, like rock and roll was the great contribution of ours. I don’t really like Facebook (although I do join in) but I love Twitter and blogs. I jumped on Google+ as soon as it came out, and yes indeedy it was dead cool – but also a tad disappointing. Somehow I was expecting something radically new and surprising, whereas it turned out to be pretty much like Facebook but done better. So it seems the revolutionary era is over, and we are into variations on a theme.

In a similar fashion, because rock music seemed to turn the world upside down between 1955 and 1968, I assumed that there would be some kind of revolution in music once a decade. But in fact, I would contend, nothing revolutionary has happened since. The different flavours of music since are really just variations on the same kind of stuff. I am not saying that the old stuff is the best. I think I might vote for Pretty Balanced  as best band ever. But its the same type of music I knew and loved in the seventies.

Jack M thought this wrong, and quoted dance, electronic, and dubstep as the proof. My feeling is that dubstep in particular is indeed pretty original, but not that far from the structure and feel of rock music. More to the point, none of these had the wide cultural and social impact of rock and roll. I could point you at even more radical modern music, but only about four and half of us care. A stronger case might be made for rap music, which is on a line through gospel and soul and Detroit rather than through blues and country and rock; and rap has had considerable social impact.

But I still think that if you take the helicopter view, jazz and rock were the only two musico-cultural revolutions in the twentieth century. I might give you rap music as a major earthquake without being a full scale revolution.

Something Fresh

December 6, 2011

Almost escaped from teaching. Maybe Ye Olde Blogge can Arise Again. But what, but what, is burning to be said ? Here is a shortlist.

(1) The title is for Professor Smail. First ever Blandings novel. But people have sent me emails saying “we cannot live by Wodehouse alone” so better stop there.

(2) The NOAO consultation has proceeded apace. The latest issue of their newsletter summarises the results  which seem to be that (a) we are relatively cheap really; (b) 4m telescopes will still do some groovy stuff; (c) we need 4m telescopes to train more astronomers. All true, but I can’t see this sort of stuff gripping the likes of Michelle Turner-Overdrive or whatever her name is.

(3) Meanwhile an AURA review into how to run Gemini  recommends it just gets swallered up by NOAO. Luckily the Yookay isn’t involved any more, so there is no need for us to splutter. Leave that to the Canadians.

(4) A new age of optimism dawns ! Wommers jetting around the world making positive noises, kissing people’s hands, and shaking babies. (Shum mishtake ? Ed). THES had an interview  and STFC had its own Hello John  news item. Better than a Dear John letter I suppose. But I drift. No sooner was JW in place than SKA leapt into the future .

(5) Presumably SKA will happen sometime after the lost decade. This economy stuff is a tad depressing what? Watched the Fred Goodwin show on the Beeb last night. Then I noticed that I am in possession of a cheque from ABN Amro, the toxic bank which RBS cleverly bought just before the dam burst. Better cash it quick.

Much of the world of finance seems like vapourware. Credit default swaps ? How did anybody think they were doing anything real ? But the effects are real and scary. Merkel and Sarkozy are proposing, as far as I understand, to make Keynesian economics illegal from now on. Wuh ? Now every day our futures lurch from side to side as “the markets” respond wildly. This is nuts. Like some crazy machine with the feedback loops all wrong. I reckon the economy needs a spot of systems engineering. We need to turn on some damping Cap’n ! Can we get someone from the ATC or RAL to take over ?

All I need now is guest posts expanding the above shortlisted items. Then I can go and do me christmas shoppin.