Euclid officially official

June 20, 2012

Maybe you all thought Euclid had already been selected. Well sort of. Yesterday the ESA Science Programme Committee  “adopted” Euclid, so its now officially official and all systems go. Here is the Beeb story.

I am on the Euclid consortium and must get round to doing something useful sometime. I am just realising it should be rather groovy for transients so maybe something in that line. I like big flares of the sleeping black hole variety.

Of course being on the Euclid consortium is not altogether special. There are about nine hundred of us.  I think I read somewhere that it is the biggest astronomical consortium in the history of the Outer Galaxy or something like that. Is this a good thing ?

Popper’s victory

June 18, 2012

Just been walking to work listening to Start the Week on my dPhone. Rather jolly as it featured Mark Henderson (wants more Geekdom in Government), David Nutt (kicked off advisory committee for speaking truth to power re drugs) and David Blunkett (weird mixture of refreshingly blunt and creepily political). Mark made a big point of the idea that we need not just to encourage the spread of scientific knowledge, but to cultivate the habit of scientific thinking : a certain approach to critical problem solving. Quite right too, but reminds me of the debate last week on Telescoper’s blog about whether we should be teaching Physics knowledge, Physics understanding, or Physics skills.

The related point, picked up and run with by the Marr, was that the striking thing about scientists is that they are always trying to prove themselves wrong. Popper-style bollocks. Why has this become the official philosophy of science ? Science progresses by people relentlessly chasing down ideas and facts within a safe framework. You can’t go trying to prove yourself wrong every day. That way lies madness. We change our minds either when some striking new fact accidentally emerges, or after years, as the evidence piles up and can no longer be squeezed into the theory : and then there is a BIG change. I guess you can tell that my instinct is closer to Kuhn, but even then only as a sociological description, not as a philosophical position.

I do understand the debating point; and clearly scientists are more open to change than politicians. But whats the fundamental point here ? Is it that as a point of principle we like proving ourselves wrong ? No. Its that we are committed to arriving at true knowledge. Scepticism is only one of several things in our armoury. Maybe its about timescales. The success of scientific research over four hundred years means that – at least as far as the behaviour of the physical world is concerned – moment by moment scepticism is almost pointless. But scepticism over years remains hugely important.

In case people think I am making an anti-scepticism argument, I see this as a practical issue, not a principled one. Where we do not yet have a sound underlying theory – eg human behaviour – moment by moment scepticism is very valuable. But do we really think every physicist wakes up each morning and says to herself : “Now, how can I go about proving Einstein wrong today”. Give us a break.

I Was A Fool

June 14, 2012

There are two versions of the invention of rock and roll. Story One says (white) country music and (black) rhythm and blues collided, one mysterious day in 1955, in the heads of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and Little Richard, and a strange new beast emerged, which Lo ! was Rock and Roll. Story Two says that this is a typical oversimplification of a long and complex evolution. Start with Ragtime, take a line through Tin Pan Alley, Duke Elllington and Robert Johnson, and we see a swirling phantasmagoria of music which changes gradually. At some arbitrary point we decide to label it “rock and roll”.

I quite like Story Two because I am a Child of the Sixties and have always found myself working backwards from Zeppelin and Clapton through John Lee Hooker, Son House, Big Bill Broonzy, Robert Johnston, and Scott Joplin. I fell in love with the blues. Just recently I bought some Elmore James – not sure why I had ignored him before. He is amazing, and was idolised by Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards, and Peter Green. When I listened to my new purchase however I was surprised. From 1955, “Sunnyland” is straight ahead blues :

but “I Was A Fool” is fully formed rock and roll.  In fact it sounds just like Chuck Berry only better.

and “Goodbye Baby” sounds kinda like Blueberry Hill :

How come Chuck Berry and Fats Domino got famous and Elmore James didn’t ?

Finally, for the “who invented rock and roll” detectives, we have the real source of the Nile : Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston and the Delta Cats – a band put together by Ike Turner. Four years before Elvis or Haley, the whole thing was there :

X-ray astronomy not dead yet : NuSTAR

June 14, 2012

The news earlier this week was that ESO announced the ELT was DEFINITELY MAYBE going ahead. There is just this kinda small money detail thing. Anyway, all systems standby-to-go ! When they give us the money ! Actually, it does exude a feeling of almost unstoppable momentum. And furthermore no more major re-designs seem likely. We know what we will build. SKA has also picked up momentum of course. Phase I is a done deal and looks dead good already, but Phase II is still an opium dream really. Anyhoo. With all these exciting but expensive things looming, you can see why STFC needed to close down those tinnsy-winnsy 4m telescopes. Need that headroom !

PeterC wrote a post linking this to the earlier Athena shenanigans : OIR and X-ray astronomy seem to be hitting the all-or-nothing funding wall at the same time. Meanwhile old chum Martin is doing his Cassandra thing in Nature.  But But But the lovely news from yesterday is that NuSTAR had a successful launch. You could read the Beeb version here, watch the NASA launch movie here, or get the real goods from the SPIE paper here. (Seven down is the one to read).  NuStAR is  a hard X-ray mission which cost only $170M. The picture below (taken from the NuSTAR web site) does the sell :

Effective area of NuSTAR mirrors versus energy. Jeez, thats good.

At hard X-ray energies it is WAY more sensitive than XMM or Chandra. On the other hand, the resolution is fairly crummy – 10 arcsec FWHM. So you can see that it won’t be a general purpose X-ray observatory, but it will do some areas of science fantastically well. I would say the most exciting mission of recent times was WISE, and that wasn’t billions either. So it can be done.

Its also technologically cute, with a 10m extendable boom, a multi-layer coating mirror to get reflectivity at slightly better than the otherwise tiny grazing incidence angles, and Cadmium Zinc thingy detectors. And all the data will be public.

So good luck to NuSTAR … and especially with the boom opening !

Spooks to the rescue

June 4, 2012

Not often I write two posts in one day, but here is an unexpected piece of news. It seems that the US National Reconnaisance Office have given two free telescopes to NASA. Its all explained at this NY Times article. They are as big as HST but have a wider field of view. They were designed for looking down of course.  Apparently there has been a secret study team and their conclusion is that one of these beasts would be perfect WFIRST, which had seemed to be kicked into the long grass.

They don’t exactly have the rest of the money yet or an actual approval … but the WFIRST fans are talking about shooting for 2020 … a year behind Euclid.

Ooooo what fun. Spot of healthy competition.

Unfulfilled Utopias (Anarchy in Arcady)

June 4, 2012

Everybody in the UK is doing nostalgia this week. I find this tricky because I am instinctively a republican but on the other hand I do have a warrant signed by Her Queen, being Regius Prof and all that. So I willl compromise and try a bit of Saxe-Coburg-free nostalgia.

I have been doing a spot of tidying up and so rummaging amongst childhood books and parental effects. Back in the sixties, it seemed obvious that by the year 2012 we would be well on the way to World Government. Hah. And there would be no war. Hah. And we would have jet packs. Hah. And we would all work less. Hah. After a bit longer (23rd century according to Star Trek) money would no longer exist or even have a meaning. We would be transitioning to the money-less economy by having computerised money stored on microchips in our clothing. Hmm. Almost there… And of course Engerlund would be the bestest footy team forever !!! On the other hand, cricket-wise we would be rubbish for ever and probably Gary Sobers would be beatified. I did have a friend who taught in a school with lots of West Indian kids, and one of them brought her an apple on Gary Sobers’ birthday. No, really.

Well, we did get the Beatles, and the Internet, and credit cards, so much of the time Hoi Polloi were happy enough. But now we are waking up to realise that the rich have been taking the piss out of us for thirty years, and we are still being fooled. (Nice interview with Paul Krugman here .) I write this carefully as a moderately well paid person, right on the divide between those who have made no progress and those who have grabbed loadsa money.  The honourable vision of European government also seems to have gone horribly wrong, and is adding to the problem.

More rummaging.  Came across some old bits and pieces belonging to me Mum. She died a few years ago. Among these was a store discount card, labelled “Valid in Arcadia”. This seemed very strangely poignant.

Arcadia is a group of companies. My father worked for Debenhams, who were bought up by Burtons, which begat the Arcadia group, which then splintered again, or something like that. Anyhoo, just before retiring my dad was entitled to a staff discount card, valid in any Arcadia group store.

Arcadia is a real place – a province of Greece. I have no idea if it is suffering more or less than the rest of Greece, but I think things are bad everywhere. Chaos and poverty.

Through much of European history however, Arcadia has been a symbol of pastoral simplicity and timelessness. Most of the ancient Greeks lived in cities by the sea, but the Arcadians were shepherds and farmers : innocent and happy. Then Poussin went and put a bitter taste into our mouths, with his famous painting. Shepherds gather around a grim tomb engraved with the words  “Et in Arcadia Ego”. Even in Arcadia, death is here.

In our innocent happy times, your credit card works and you can buy yourself a new hat whenever you like. But eventually all that is left is the piece of plastic embossed with the reminder that death too comes to Arcadia.