Goodbye Wal

October 31, 2012

Sad news for astronomy – Wal Sargent has died.Wal is famous for his work on quasar absorption lines, but was also a pillar of Caltech, producing a stream of stellar grad students such as John  Huchra, Chuck Steidel, and Alex Filippenko. He was a much loved character as well as a world leading scientist. He is survived by his wife Anneila, who is of course an equally famous astronomer. Anneila is from Fife and we were very proud to give her an honorary degree a few years back.

The Caltech announcement is here. Sean Carroll has already written some words at Cosmic Variance, and there are a lot of comments on the Facebook Astronomers group page.

I only met Wal a few times, but I felt as if I knew him before I even met him, as I used to listen to Mike Penston telling Wal stories at lunchtime in the old RGO at Herstmonceux castle. Apparently, some time in the sixties, possibly the same year that Mike and Margaret broke one of the beds at Palomar, Wal and Mike wrote a Pantomime called “The Plate Flaw That Destroyed The Earth”.  Some astronomers notice an annoying flaw on a plate they take at Palomar. Strangely, on another plate the next week the same flaw is there but it has moved. Our heroes calculate the orbit of the plate flaw and conclude that it will hit the Earth on Christmas Day.Very Milligan. Can’t remember what happens next. Perhaps some old timer can enlighten us?

I have heard Wal quoted repeatedly during STFC and PPARC crises. Being an ex-Brit, Wal was often bemused by the strange recurring political lurchings and restucturings of British science and especially astronomy. It is claimed – I don’t know if its really true – that he once said that every few year years the Government pulls the astronomical plant out of the ground, examines the dangling roots to see if its growing, then pushes it back in.

Time is simple

October 29, 2012

Just been marking some Physics 1A coursework. In one question about frames of reference, the expected answer to “what is the key assumption necessary for this to be valid” is apparently “time is simple”. In this case this means relative motion is slow, so no nasty relativistic effects; an identical time co-ordinate can be used in both frames. But “time is simple” made me giggle.

(a) I have just listened to several deadlines whooshing by, when only a moment ago they were nowhere near. It seems obvious that space-time is non-linear. Not just curved but crinkled. We need some kind of adaptive optics equivalent for straightening out the space-time curvature. We must get Doc Brown working on it.

(b) I have been noting further signs of entropy in the old bod. Most distressing. How did this happen? I am still eighteen, obviously. As the Thin White Duke used to sing, Time may change me, but I can’t trace Time. Or maybe Sandy Denny had it down – Who knows where the time goes? Perhaps as her chum RT used to sing, we’ll all meet on the ledge. (Stop now, getting depressing – Ed.)

(c) Meanwhile the Government makes it worse with all this clock changing tomfoolery. My apprentice Jack tells there is an old Navaho saying – only the government can believe that cutting a foot off the bottom of the blanket and sewing it onto the top of the blanket, you get a  longer blanket. Whats more, technology has made it more confusing.

Saturday night I wanted to set an alarm, as I had to get up reasonably early to go do something. I stared at several different digital devices and I really didn’t know whether they would automatically adjust themselves in the middle of the night or not. What should I set the alarm for? When I woke up, how would I know if the change had been made or not? I could easily blow it by an hour in either direction. So I put three different devices on the bedside table and crossed my fingers. Luckily, in the morning, two had changed and one had not, so the conclusion was clear. But Jeez, how nervewracking. Why haven’t I got a CLOCK???

Now you can guess. Device A = radio alarm. Device B= ancient Palm LifeDrive. Device C = mobile phone. Which one was thankfully the dumbest?

Java in crisis?

October 22, 2012

We all use Java every day : stand-alone Java applications like Topcat and Aladin; in-web-page Java applets (Aladin again); and on the server side (e.g. WSA and VSA). But now it seems there is a security crisis; serious people are telling us to disable or remove it. Wuh ? At the risk of boring the ungeeks let me explain how I just stumbled into this understanding. Its a classic tale of confusion, coincidence, and mysterious disappearances.

I am a big fan of Tiddlywiki. Its a personal wiki – a kind of hyper-notebook. You run it on your own computer, or even from a memory stick. Its very clever. Just a single html file, containing both your text, and the javascript needed to edit it. The tricky bit comes when you want to save your changes. That requires your browser to write a file onto your computer – a new version of that single html file. Thats done with Java, as opposed to javascript. You place a file called “tiddlysaver.jar” in the same directory and it does the work. You have to give explicit permission to write onto your disk of course. We ain’t nuts.

So… recently … for reasons I won’t bore you with, I wiped my Firefox installation and made a new one. (Well ok – my wordpress front page widgets weren’t working, and after many tortured days, it was the only fix that worked.) A few days later I tried to update one of my tiddlywiki notebooks. It wouldn’t save. Trawled through various FF settings but couldn’t fix it. So I tried to do my edits in Safari. Same. And Chrome. Same. Oh. Maybe the FF change was a coincidence ? If it fails everywhere, it must be a MacOS problem? Then I suddenly remembered I’d had the identical problem when I upgraded to Mountain Lion. Sensible chap that I am, I’d left myself a wee note. It said “go to the Java Preferences app and tick the box that says enable applet plugin“. So, off I goes. Hmm. No such checkbox. Must have been removed in some recent system upgrade.

Now… a few weeks back I had a hair tearing Time Machine problem. Apparently my backup was going to take 11,158 days. I spent several days fretting about this on and off and wondering what I had screwed up. Then  lo! A new Software Update was announced which amongst other things said “this also fixes a problem some users may have been having with Time Machine backups”. And yea, indeed, verily did the SU completely fix this problem. Grrr. Wasn’t me at all. Wish I’d known.

So… maybe its another Apple SNAFU. Is there a new SU ? Yup. And look! Its a Java update! But … (a) it still didn’t fix the problem and (b) the Java Preferences app has completely disappeared !! I check out the “more detail at apple support” page . This says

This update uninstalls the Apple-provided Java applet plug-in from all web browsers. To use applets on a web page, click on the region labeled “Missing plug-in” to go download the latest version of the Java applet plug-in from Oracle.

This update also removes the Java Preferences application, which is no longer required to configure applet settings.

Click on the region ? What region ? What the hell does that mean?

Then I read a bit more on the Tiddlywiki home page. It seems all the major browsers are clamping down on Java, disabling by default, and making you jump through more hoops. For Firefox there is a specific Tiddlywiki fix – a FF extension called TiddlyFox. So at least I am (temporarily) sorted…

On Chrome, if you try to run an applet like Aladin, you get a banner saying”Java(TM) is needed to run some elements on this page” and there is button labelled install plug-in. This takes you to an Oracle page which says

Chrome does not support Java 7. Java 7 runs only on 64-bit browsers and Chrome is a 32-bit browser.

If you download Java 7, you will not be able to run Java content in Chrome and will need to use a 64-bit browser (such as Safari or Firefox) to run Java content within a browser. Additionally, installing Java 7 will disable the ability to use Apple Java 6 on your system.

OK, screw that then. How about Safari ? The Aladin applet seems to run ok. But Tiddlywiki does not. This is because it wants to write to your disk. Some documentation on the Tiddlywiki site told me what to do … open Safari preferences, go to “Advanced” and tick “Show Develop menu in menu bar”. Then a new menu items appears in your menu bar called “Develop” with options for grown-ups. (Don’t forget to open the door marked “beware of the leopard”.) Finally move down that menu and mark “Disable local file restrictions”. Yay !! But guess what. That menu item no longer exists. Somebody really doesn’t want us to do this.

Finally … I started roaming around the interwebs the way you do, seeing if other folk had the same probs. I stumbled over this nice Java Tester Page. This is where I first saw the scary words “Java Security Flaw”…  I then followed the link to this article by Michael Horowitz and things began to make sense … sort of.

It seems there are serious security flaws that won’t be fixed until February 2013. Horowitz says

Java is used by both installed applications and websites. If you only need Java for an application, disable it in all your browsers. OS X users on Lion and Mountain Lion had Apple do this for them (more below). Windows users in this situation may want to consider the portable version of Java available at   If you need Java for a website, enable Java in a browser used only on the site that needs it. For all other websites, use a browser that has Java disabled.

I can remember back when Java was the next big thing. Now, it’s all but a curse word.

Jeez.  Gordon Bennett. Is it really true ?

Smoking Lectures

October 17, 2012

I am down in Sunny Sussex. My seafront hotel satisfies all the Brighton cliches. Expecting to meet Dickie Attenborough in the pub with Julian Clary any moment, after an invigorating windy spray-sodden walk following my greasy spoon breakfast.

Anyhoo. I was here last night for Seb Oliver’s inaugural public lecture, and a jolly fine occasion it was too. It was called “Smoke signals from the distant universe” and featured Herschel heavily as well as some fun demos involving TV remote controls, infra-red cameras, and smoke bombs. Rumour has it that the VC was pleased, which is what really matters of course. Chatter afterwards over the canapes was that he was heard to note that Scientists did these things better than Humanities types. Some of my fellow chatterers nodded, reminiscing about English and History inaugurals where the New Prof offered a dry reading-out of a written script, like a spoken essay, before a bemused public.

As a student, I can remember crashing the lectures of some arty friends and being a bit shocked – same thing… stand at lectern, read out essay, no eye contact. Is it still like that ? Any Humanities-type readers out there or is this purely a nerd-filled zone ?

It was suggested that lively public lectures is a scientific tradition because we all had childhood radio/TV role models – Fred Hoyle, Carl Sagan, Brainy Cox etc. But hang on, what about Kenneth Clarke, Bettany Hughes, Neil Oliver etc ? So perhaps the two provocative questions would be :

  • Why is TV History so wonderful when Academic History is so awful ?
  • When Historians do public lectures, they treat it as a version of academia; whereas when we do public lectures, our instinct is to treat it like TV … why ?


Ronnie, Grace, and Aoife

October 13, 2012

All right, all right, enough already. Seems my public is clamouring. Well, I say “public” but of course Mike is an old chum and Ian is a comrade in arms, my sturdy lieutenant in the New Model Grants Panel. But I have also been recently embarassed by a colleague who only just discovered I blog, but found themselves uncertain of whether this was historical research. (This  encounter was on my recent visit to the lovely new Imperialist Centre for Infernal Cosmology, aka the New Jerusalem of Bayesianism).

I suppose I should be writing about UKIRT for sale, as it is a somewhat new development in modern astronomy, or rather the sociopolitics thereof. But  I am lost for words. I will come back to this I promise. But meanwhile here is some Saturday morning musical indulgence.

This morning on the radio I listened to Paul Gambaccini narrating the story of the Weavers famous 1955 Carnegie Hall concert, which launched the folk revolution. It was their first appearance after years of hiding from Senator McCarthy as it were. (Of course, they were Communists). Fascinating stuff. But somewhat to my surprise, I was struck by how much Ronnie Gilbert sounded like Grace Slick. A belting intensity, emotional but controlled use of vibrato, and utter conviction.

Exhibit A : The Weavers playing Darling Cory.

Exhibit B :  Jefferson Airplane from 1969 in Woodstock playing Volunteers

Note Grace Slick with finger in ear. Obviously a true folkie. Note also the revolutionary intent. Finally, note the “call and response” structure. This is classic gospel, but The Gambaccini explained this morning that the Weavers were the first white folk to build this style into their songs. I really do see a straight line from the Weavers to Jefferson Airplane.

Now just for fun, here is a much more modern version of Darling Cory, played by the rather wonderful Crooked Still. Progressive Bluegrass ? How can you go wrong ?  Aoife O’Donovan is a very different style of singer to either Ronnie Gilbert of Grace Slick, but really very very good.

Finally, and especially for Mike, here is Grace Slick at her best : White Rabbit. Its so beautiful its frightening.

Now I must go and do some Physics 1A marking.