A billion stars

March 29, 2012

Funny old day yesterday at NAM2012. I gave an emergency talk (filling in for a cancellation), picked up my share of the RAS Group Award for UKIDSS, sloped off to the pub with co-conspirators Nige Hambly, Mike Irwin, and Steve Warren, and then went to the RAS Dining Club for only the second time ever, at the Midland Hotel, where apparently Rolls met Royce.

Today is another fun day, especially for WFAU chum Nick Cross, who is giving a talk today announcing the public release of VISTA data.To make this a bit more fun, WFAU wizard Mike Read stitched together UKIDSS GPS data and VISTA VVV data in the Galactic Plane to make a zooomable mega image containing a billion stars. There is a press release here , Nick is on the Beeb here, and you can play with the zoomi-map thingy here. See if you can spot the Milky Way’s nuclear star cluster.  When you are ready for a spot of serious science however, do a few SQL warm up exercises and then zip off to the actual VISTA Science Archive.

Update : nice plug on BBC News web site  which for a while was the No.1 most-read … and is still number 3 !

Reasons to be grateful

March 21, 2012

Flame on.

So. NHS bill passed. Pointless privatisation of various other things on the way. I choose the word “pointless” carefully. I firmly believe some things should be privatised and believe in enterprise and competition. Sod right and left. How about some pragmatism?  Health Care? Railways? Police? Roads? How dumb can you get ? Government should provide an infrastucture that allows enterprise to flourish on top, not artificially slice up an infrastructure so that it can be milked by people who wouldn’t know competition if it bit them in the arse.

Flame off.

Time to cheer myself up. As I travel the globe, I found there is some wondrous thing to be grateful for in every land I visit. Below are some things various cultures have donated to the world. I dare say you have your own list.

  • USA : turning right on red. Genius.
  • France : the gamine. From Jeanne D’Arc to Audrey Tautou
  • Germany : Scwheinhaxe. Could eat this all week.
  • England : Cricket. Totally weird sport, but strangely fascinating.
  • New York : Woody Allen movies. Yes I know I already did USA, but New York is a separate country.
  • Italy : Motherhood. Definitely invented in Napoli.
  • Armenia : the Markarian Survey. Changed my life, squire.
  • Wales : Eve Myles. Is there anything else ?
  • Spain : Churros and chocolate. Addicted.
  • Japan : Kobe Beef. Its SO expensive there is no danger of me wasting my money
  • Netherlands : Bicycle lanes
  • Scotland : Uisgeagh

OK. Time for some proper work.

Astronomer, moi ?

March 16, 2012

There is a rather fun new website called I, Astronomer, run by Prasanth, who also has a geeky blog. The idea is that astronomers answer a standard questionnaire about how they work and which software they use etc. I got invited to join in, and so indeed here I am.

I think I just doubled the mean age of the participants.

The decline of email

March 14, 2012

I like the new version of the site stats for WordPress blog authors, especially the geographical stats. I am more international than I realised ! As usual I am a tad behind Telescoper. Apparently he reaches about a hundred countries and I reach about fifty. Meanwhile in Twitterland I have 759 followers. Gulp. Who are all these people ? And a steady stream of people are joining Facebook and want to be my fwiend. Everybody is speaking to everybody else ! Its ballooning out of control ! But … I seem to get significantly less email than I used to …

Is this a well known thing, or just me ? And is it connected with the rise of Blogs Twitter and Facebleuuchhh ? Like most scientists, I started using email in the early 80s. At first it was mostly inside my own institution (RGO at that time). Then there was growing chatter between Starlink nodes. Next, thanks to Decnet and SPAN, it started being possible to send emails to Oz and Yankland and so on. That was magic. Then TCP/IP and SMTP took over, every scientist had an email address of the same form, and the world really became transparent.

The next bit wasn’t so groovy. Microsoft made email so easy (Outlook was one of their best products) that  it was discovered by our University administrators. Suddenly they could pester you and demand stuff thirty times a day. Then your auntie and all your cousins found out about email (Outlook Express…). Clearly, email was going exponential, and it was getting to be a serious problem. I noticed that senior people learned to write three sentence emails, whereas postdocs and administrators sent you six screenfuls of stuff.

But now the tide seems to be going out. Natural feedback cycle ? Everybody going bonkers on Twitter instead ? Or have I just become less popular ?

SKA leak

March 11, 2012

Following the earlier teaser, rumours about the SKA site recommendation are leaking out through the press. South Africa has gone into a clear lead. Note careful use of word “recommendation”. An expert committee has made an evaluation on scientific and technical grounds, but the real decision is with the SKA Board, with voting members from China, UK, the Netherlands, and Italy. Firstly, there are quite properly financial, management, and political issues to consider. Secondly, the technical evaluation was apparently quite close. So the fat lady ain’t sung yet, but I guess if you are on your way to the bookies, you will find the Australian odds somewhat lengthened.

The leak appeared first in the Sydney Morning Herald. There is a video interview at that link with somebody called Dan Flitton, who seems to be the channel rather than the source of the leak. Official sources are of course doing the no-comment thing, but nobody seems to have denied Flitton’s statement, and the story has been repeated – in South Africa, in Business Day  and the Mail and Guardian ; on the BBC news site; and in Nature News. The Nature article implies that they have their own source. Its all interestingly different from earlier rumours of a possible merger.

Its now spreading round the usual news re-cyclers and aggregators, with nothing new as far as I can tell. Slashdot has a classic internet style discussion. All sorts of random gibberish, misundertandings, and vileness, with the odd genuine insight sprinkled in, including some suggestions of the technical pros and cons. Take a look if you feel up to holding your nose as you wade past the trolls.

Anyhoo. Board meets April 4th. Albert, JW, you may decline to comment of course.

À suivre, as our French chums say.

Accidents do happen

March 2, 2012

Maybe time to move on from the religion wars.

In case you hadn’t heard, there was an accident recently at the 4m Blanco telescope at CTIO. The f/8 secondary had been removed to allow the installation of the camera for the Dark Energy Survey (DES). At first I heard a rumour it had actually fallen out, but it wasn’t quite that dramatic. The cart carrrying it on the dome floor toppled over. Two technicians were injured, but it seems they will be ok. The mirror is cracked. DES soldiers on apparently.

I guess we should be grateful it wasn’t worse in human terms. Telescopes are huge chunks of balanced metal and glass, and their infrastructure is chock full of electrical, chemical, and mechanical hazards.

I just know that every infra-red astronomer over a certain age is thinking of Marc Aaronson. Marc was killed in 1987 in a freak accident at Blanco’s twin, the 4m Mayall telescope on Kitt Peak. He was crushed by the revolving dome. The NY times news article is here  and there is a Wikipedia page  about Marc. Steward Observatory set up a Memorial Lectureship, which has  has had some very distinguished holders, including two subsequent Nobel prize winners.

I am aware of other close calls. The week before one of my WHT observing runs, a parked car was destroyed by a huge slab of ice sliding off the dome. Nobody was inside, luckily. They don’t park there any more. Visitors to the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii may recall a scary photo just above the reception hatch, which I reproduce here.

Overturned Bronco on Mauna Kea Summit Road

This is what happens if you drive too fast on the Mauna Kea summit road. This picture is actually from the wall in JAC. I don't know who took it. I think this is a scan of a 35mm slide of a picture I took of the picture many years ago !

Academics hate bureaucracy of course. A favourite whinge is  “Health and Safety”. Well, I guess its true that it is often the victim of administrative excess … but … accidents do happen, boys and girls.