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 ?


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.

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.

Bibliography Blues

July 12, 2011

The JWST discussion is getting vairy interesting. But meanwhile life continues. There are students to meet and papers to write. I am trying to finish writing up something I have been fiddling with for yonks. Let me burden you with three niggles about writin’ papers these days. The first of these I already tried out on the Twittersphere, but got a three-way split, so I am trying again….

We are not amused

I am writing a single author paper. Do I go for “I” or “we” or the passive voice ? Nothing seems right…

“In this paper, I consider the effect of X on Y…” Sounds a bit arrogant.

“In this paper, we consider…” So, Andy, is that the royal we ? Or are you having a personality crisis ?

“The effect of X on Y is considered…” By who ? Sounds a tad dry and formal.

Gaagh. What do I do ? I am bound to be wrong.

MNRAS long author list bug

Like many of you, I use BibTeX, and when writing a MNRAS paper, use the standard Blackwell supplied  LateX stuff including mn2e.bst file and a \bibliographystyle{mn2e} command. Mostly this works fine, but if you have a paper with a very long author list, it throws up an error when you run BibTeX:

Warning-you’ve exceeded 250, the entry-string-size, for entry Crenshaw1996 while executing-line 1223 of file mn2e.bst . Please notify the bibstyle designer.

and then LaTeX compilation bombs. Previously I have just excluded that paper and then added another \bibitem by hand. The Blackwell folk know this is a problem, because the README says

Note that there is a known bug in the .bst file: for very long author lists BibTeX reports an error. We are aware of the problem and hope to correct this in a future release

Unfortunately the README has said the same thing since Feb 2001. However, as often in geekdom, the community rides to its own rescue. I found a fix  written by Michael Williams at MPE. His file has the same name as the official Blackwell version, but I renamed it when downloading so I would know when I am using the fixed version. Thank you Michael !

Ex Libris Xerxes

What do people use these days for collecting and sorting their private libraries of research papers ? I have been oscillating around various options and not quite stabilising. At two ends, the constraints are clear. One wants a .bib database for squirting things into our LaTeX documents; and one wants to grab things from ADS and arXiv . In ADS itself you can construct private libraries and export them, and I use this a fair bit, but it doesn’t give me the sort of hands-on metadata editing I sometimes want, or the sorting, grouping, tagging and general manipulative ability that you want. For that sort of thing, there are quite a few commercial packages, like EndNote, Papers, Bookends, etc, but I have always used the free Java app Jabref. This is v.good, but it doesn’t give me the ability to grab and add things from ADS.

Some publishers have tried to solve this problem via a web interface, and of course lock you into their world while they are at it. Springer tried CiteULike  (worst —  name — ever) and Nature publishing tried Connotea . Being server hosted, they can add a social networking side. Join a group, share your favourite papers with your chums etc. Then I discovered Zotero. This is a kind of hybrid. Its a firefox extension that feels like a proper app but works with ADS, giving a one-click import. It has FOLDERS not just bloody tags so you can organise things just as you want them. But it also has that social groupy thingy. Its lovely. But I wanted to use Chrome… or at least not be locked into Firefox. So I decided to give it up.

So then I discovered that the trendy young things these days use Mendeley. It is a commercial enterprise, but with an open feel. The basic version is free, but you pay for premium service like more storage and extra features. There is a desktop client and a server side, so they try to get the best of both worlds that way, but that does mean you have to keep synchronising. The most annoying thing has bee the lack of sub-folders (I like a hierarchy myself) but I heard a rumour the new version fixes this.

So anyway I will keep at it for a while. But right now my chain of action is (i) Browse ADS. (ii) Grab into Mendeley. (iii) Export folders to bibtex. (iv) Fiddle with bibtex with Jabref (v) Run LaTeX.

There is probably a discussion on Astrobetter  somewhere, but of course I can’t be arsed to go and look for it. Stufff to do.

Education, Education, Education : Cost, Cost, Cost

June 28, 2011

Whats the word I am looking for ? Chutzpah ? Brass Neck ? Arrogance ? Yet again, the coalition government are launching into an extra-ordinarily radical reform agenda with no mandate whatsoever. I refer of course to the appearance of David Willetts this morning on the Today programme, trailing the HE White Paper that isn’t even out yet. You can listen to the interview here, and read summaries from the Guardian and the THE; and here is the opposition response from, John Denham.  The pitch is (i) More power to the student with the money ! (ii) More competition please ! (iii) More concentration on teaching quality !  (iv) More information so students can decide !

Some concrete ideas seem to be (i) Remove the quota on places. (ii) Universities must publish information on employment outcomes of degrees (iii) Universities must publish data on contact hours. (iv) Universities must account for how they use fees. (v) Courses that employers don’t like should be scrapped.

Why is this happening ? Whats broke that needs fixing ? Well partly its the good old “profit motive fixes everything”, but mostly its about COSTS. Government wants large fraction of people to have HE. But can’t afford this from public purse. So get universities to charge the customer. But this is impossible for most families  unless big loans are available, so government has to cough up in first instance. Mega cash flow problem unless universities bring in full fees a little bit slower please. Ooops. Everybody wants to charge 9000 NOW. Ok. Only option is force some universities to get cheaper. Drive them into competition and let some go to the wall unless they develop cut price versions.

I am not sure I am totally against more university competition. But please don’t believe any of the bollocks about improving student experience etc. Its exactly the opposite. The whole thing only adds up if some universities are dirt cheap, and offer an experience to match. OK, so this is a real option. Lets be open minded. But lets call a pig a pig.

If you are upset enough, you can sign a no confidence petition here.

Oh .. and .. anybody know what will happen in Scotland ?

Social and anti-social astronomers

June 7, 2011

Its exam time. Don’t we love it. Students and Staff alike. We do ours a little earlier than most, so my marking is all done and we are in the middle of exam boards. Its a multi-stage process these days, with separate special circumstances committees, pre-boards, and stage-1 course boards, before the official final exam board. The latter then largely homologates the recommendations of these earlier committees. Probably more efficient than it used to be, but even more bureaucratic. So we all look forward to the small amount of socialisation that goes with the process – the annual exam board dinner !

So there we were last night, at Blonde. By the way, I recommend you don’t Google “Blonde, Edinburgh” unless you have safe search switched on. Or on the other hand… anyway. It was a fairly usual mix. Gossiping about George and Carlos and the Gruber Prize, bitching about absent members of staff, and as the wine flowed on, bitching about present members of staff. But there was also an interesting conversation about Blogs and Twitter.

Nearly everybody present was a Luddite and thought blogs and tweeting were onanistic and time wasting. A polite exception was made for my blog, and Peter’s, on account of they were (at least sometimes) a useful community conversation forum. Myself and @wikimir and @paula_wilkie were the only Tweeters. To everybody else, Twitter seemed even more clearly bizarrely pointless. People thought the idea of @WETI was funny, but that was seen as a joke on Tweeting. I was challenged to describe a real use of Twitter. About the best I could come up with was that Paul Crowther knew everything first, and that if you followed him on Twitter, you would know everything second. The response to this was “whats the hurry ?”

Then this morning I became aware of an interesting new attempt to make Twitter useful – the Astronomy Journal Club, set up by Emma Rigby, Matt Burleigh, and Emily Baldwin. I learned about it first in Sarah Kendrew’s blog post here. Its all brand new, so who knows if its going to work, but why not give it a go ?

Three scary stories

October 28, 2010

Comments are still dribbling along on my previous post, but drifting somewhat. Folks are determined to talk about ESO. Meanwhile I have been writing lecture notes and going to a workshop on sky survey data management. So here is a brief restart.

Just as we thought the groves of academe had gotten off lightly, we start to learn the awful truth. Following the Twitter trail yesterday (where would I be without Paul Crowther ?) led to three scary stories.

Scary story number one : teaching budget timing. A few days back that nice Mr Clegg told us he still had some principles and wouldn’t allow infinite fees, just much bigger fees. We should probably should have guessed something because the announced cut was 40% not 80%. But now it seems the cuts will come in before universities are allowed to raise their fees, leading to a temporary but huge shortfall. Only places with big reserves will survive. Of course this makes the “err… what will happen in Scotland ?” question even more complicated than ever.

Scary story number two. Spiralling JWST costs. Nature News call JWST “the telescope that ate astronomy”. Don’t hold your breath for that exciting new WFIRST. Maybe 2022 if you are lucky. One of the odd things is that the graph in that article seems to show the US astrophysics budget rising to a massive peak during the Bush years. Shome mishtake shurely ? I showed this to some Arizona colleagues last night and they were mystified.

Scary story number three. Capital problems. So “we” only get cut 10%. But…. MRC seem to be promised flat funding in real terms, and thats a big slice. And…. capital budgets will fall by 44%. But…. the new medical centre thingy and Diamond upgrade will go ahead, so even less left. And…. subscriptions come partly out of capital budgets. Its worth quoting Nature here :

That money pays for everything from radio telescopes to Antarctic research stations. In particular, the cuts will hit the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds particle physics and astronomy. The council, which has struggled financially for years, has been told to prepare for its capital funding to fall by a third, according to documents seen by Nature. That could jeopardize Britain’s participation in organizations such as the European Southern Observatory.


Science, Governments, and Knowledge Transfer

October 15, 2010

I just gave my talk at this year’s ROE workshop, on Applications of Astronomy.  The meeting was full of fascinating examples of the links between astronomical technology and the wider world – in biomedical imaging, the development of fusion energy, airport security, and so on. As most of you will know, the RAS report, Big Science for the Big Society, has lots more wonderful examples. As a community, we should keep up the PR effort. We need to get these stories out.

However I found myself musing on the whole “Knowledge Exchange” thing and where it has come from. Here is my cartoon history.

Stagnating Britain. Starting in the fifties, and accelerating through the seventies and eighties, there was a widespread feeling that Britain’s industrial prowess was declining. At the same time, our scientific prowess was burgeoning, and public spending on research was growing. (It levelled off in the seventies and has waved up and down since.) Why didn’t brainpower and economic performance go together ? What was UK Ltd getting for all that research money ?

Close the Ivory Towers. The consistent government  view seemed to be that the problem was that our brilliant ideas were not getting out of the universities. In other words, the problem was in the transmitters rather than the receivers. Academics were stuck in their ivory towers. We needed to change the behaviour of scientists, so that they would think more about wealth creation.

Academic reaction to this pressure was diverse, coming in three forms :

  1. Get off my back. Hey, we’re good at our jobs – why are you criticising us ? The problem is that industry is too timid, and doesn’t spend enough on R&D.
  2. Let me explain. Actually, ideas do get out, and we already do plenty of commercialisation. We need better PR.
  3. You’re right. We owe the taxpayer more than they are getting. The academic-industrial system as a whole clearly isn’t as good as, say Silicon Valley, or turn of century Germany.

California Dreaming. Why has the US been better at this enterprise culture stuff ? Two simple things stand out. The first is easy movement between academia and industry and back. Happens all the time. The second is willingness to take risks. Venture capitalists and government agencies expect that most projects will fail. Otherwise you don’t get anything interesting, right ?

Modern Britain. So what’s changed in recent years ? The first thing is that economic prowess returned to the UK, but not in manufacturing, or resource extraction. We are good at services, finance, technology, entertainment – and science. The second thing is that there are good funding schemes to encourage academic-industrial partnerships. The third thing is that in at least some sections of Government there is a much improved, and broader, understanding of how science makes an impact. It ain’t just widgets. It can be :

  1. Output of skilled people
  2. Shared technology development
  3. Long term fundamental impact (eg electricity, the Web)
  4. Acting as demanding customer
  5. Dissemination of techniques and technology
  6. Inventions, patents, licenses, and spinouts

Its still your fault. However, despite this improved understanding of the issues, there is still pressure to make academics change their ways. RCUK has a whole website devoted to this, called Pathways to Impact. And, as all my astronomer friends know, every grant application has to include a 2 page “impact plan” covering both Outreach and Knowledge Exchange. Wearing my AGP hat, and without going into details of course, I am happy to re-assure you that Scientific Excellence remains the dominant thing – but the question remains, should everybody have to do this ? On the other hand, and again without going into details, the KE activity of some applicants is extremely good. How can we reward this without at the same time punishing people who don’t do it ?

Questions. So I find a few questions left hovering in the air :

  1. Should we insist that all scientists become more enterprise aware ?
  2. If so, how do we encourage that change ? Carrot or stick ?
  3. How do we reward enterprise without distorting the scientific process ?

Get your boots on

October 8, 2010

We interrupt Geek Week to wish good luck to those going on the Science is Vital Rally tomorrow. Fraid I have stuff to do, but I will be there in spirit.

That splendid chap Drevan Harris has written an open letter to George Osborne setting out the case. Its very clearly and forcefully written, so if you read nothing else on the subject, read that. The other thing definitely worth a butcher’s is the Scientific Century Report put together by the Royal Society. Chock full of useful facts and figures, and again putting a forceful case, not just for science, but specifically for public spending, especially through the Research Councils.

It contains a figure I copy below, showing public R&D expenditure in real terms from 1970 to 2008. See if you can, without reading the x-axis, locate the period of time occupied by the previous Conservative Government. Not hard.


Public R&D 1970-2008, Royal Society Report, The Scientific Century


Making Enemies

September 15, 2010

I am getting a bit perturbed by this Cable bashing thing. Maybe we are unwittingly making an enemy of someone who means to help.

After his Radio Four blunder, and the related speech at QMUL,  the BBC smelled rebellion in the air; the Twittersphere went into overdrive, as described in Roger Highfield’s S-word post; Peter Coles concluded that big cuts were signalled ; Brian Cox told Sun readers that Cable’s plans might be “wiping out 50% of UK research”; now Robert May says Cable is being “just plain stupid”.

Even The Daily Mail is worried about the lunacy of cutting science budgets. Crikey.

Lets get some context. The whole coalition government drastic cuts thing has me fuming. It is an ideological exercise aimed at rolling back the state, with the fiscal deficit employed cynically as a handy way to keep the public on side. The UK should be going for a mixture of modest cuts, tax rises, and infrastructural stimulus spending. Well, thats my personal opinion. But we are where we are. In that  context, Cable, a sound economist and all round good Liberal, is in a very difficult position. Every minister is saying “my Department is an exception !!”. Osborne ain’t accepting that.  What would you do in that position ? Well maybe you would talk tough while quietly protecting things that matter.

On Radio Four, speaking live, Cable implied that a large fraction of research grants are below world class. That is palpably wrong and was an appalling error. I hope he is wriggling in shame over that. Read the QMUL speech and there is no doubt what he really meant – that only 55% of the teaching staff employed at Universities are actually doing the world class research that the UK is justly famous for. But those folk already get 90% of the HEFCE/HEFCW/SFC research funding, and nearly all the RCUK grant funding. We are already pretty much doing what Cable argues for. So what is in his mind ? Clearly further steepening of the QR funding, maybe even removing QR from the lower end completely.

This could be bad, but is it “wiping out 50% of UK research” ? Of course not. Could it be misunderstood as wanting to do that ? Well yes, but only if you are looking to pick a fight.

Sometimes picking a fight is the right thing to do. Things are getting savage, and you need to establish that you ain’t a sucker to be victimised. What Cox and Highfield and others have been doing speaking up for science has been tremendously important and valuable. More please. But painting Vince Cable as Mr Evil ? Doesn’t smell right.