CSR Science Optimism?

June 24, 2013

The UK government spending review makes its announcement on Wednesday. The mainstream media have been full of reports of ministers squabbling, especially Osborne and Cable.  Interestingly, while insisting that they love each other, Osborne has said that

I, as a personal priority, want to see science supported – that’s part of this budget, and because Britain leads the world in science, and that’s all about Britain’s economic future.

Coo. Hope he means that. Meanwhile STFC is grinding towards the conclusion of its own Programmatic Review. Science Board met last week and apparently agreed a plan, contingent on budgets of course. Council will endorse in a few weeks and announcements will be made in September. Tension mounts. Do we get LSST? Do we get MOONS or WEAVE or both? I’d love both, and they really go for quite different science goals, but it might be a case of “you can’t have two MOSes”). Add your own frets.

Meanwhile ESA Cosmic Visions grinds along too. Today and tomorrow I am at a LOFT science meeting – I am not specially involved in LOFT, but am here to plug LSST. Every transient LOFT might see (in the southern sky) with the Wide Field Monitor will get a free LSST light curve. My X-ray chums are of course nervous about LOFT versus Athena. They are competing for different slots, and are suitable for very different kinds of science, but how likely is it that ESA will fly two X-ray missions?

Pippa Plugging (and a bit of Chas)

April 25, 2013

Had a rather jolly evening last night. I went to a book launch. I’d never been to one before and didn’t quite know what to expect – lots of air kissing and long fingernails I guess. In fact it was full of nice normal looking peoples, who divided into three tribes – aspiring writers, civil servants, and astronomers. The common link you see is that they were all friends of Pippa Goldschmidt, who just published her first novel, The Falling Sky. Some of you will know that Pippa used to be an astronomer in Edinburgh and Imperial, then moved into government, and has now re-invented herself again as a writer. You can buy the book from Amazon, or, if you prefer to support the UK tax system, from Freight Books. The novel is about a young female astronomer who makes an unexpected discovery which at first is very exciting but which throws her career into confusion and hostility, at the same time as her personal life is unravelling. Thats enough given away. I just finished reading it, and its really v.good indeed. I hope a lot of astronomers will read it, and half of them will think they know who the characters are. Here is a picture of a happy Pippa at the launch, with her PhD supervisor Lance Miller. Who is DEFINITELY not The Deathstar.

The Internut is a wondrous thing, as we daily re-discover. I found myself thinking how intriguing it is to finally see someone portray the real life of a scientist so accurately. There are books and movies and plays about famous scientists like Galileo and so forth, and of course squilliards of entertainments featuring nutty or mad scientists, but how often do you see real ordinary scientists? So I Googled “Scientists in Fiction” and found that there is an entire web magazine devoted to this subject – the rather marvelous LabLit.com. It has a long list of books I now want to read. Thats me sorted for about thirty more birthdays. (He said optimistically).

Its been a good month for astronomically related authors. Old RGO chum Chas Parker has just published his fourth – no hang on – his fifth – book about motor racing. His Amazon page is here. Somewhere in deepest Sussex, Chas still has my beard in a tin, but I can’t explain why without breaching the Official Secrets Act.

Cosmology Conundrum

March 26, 2013

Some colleagues have suggested that my posting on Planck Day was overly frivolous, given the huge importance of what Planck has achieved. (Nicely written up by Andrew Jaffe.) Other colleagues have suggested that Planck Day was bad press, as it was such a huge public non-event, with a big fuss about mild parameter adjustment. I find both these things true, leaving a weird sense of tension and excitement. I’d better explain myself.

First, lets be clear about the technical achievement. Planck is an absolute triumph of technology, engineering, management, and organisation. An amazing machine that has worked beautifully. It also represents a stunning scientific achievement. The lamda-CDM model, and its beautifully articulated engine of prediction, is a conceptual and analytic triumph. Of course this triumph belongs not just to the Planck team, but represents the accumulated achievement of many scientists all over the world over a number of years.

Lets just look at that power spectrum fit. It is not just a question of the theoretical curve going vaguely up and down, in more or less the same way as the data. The detailed agreement is gob-smacking – multiple peaks, their positions, their sizes, their widths, their second and third order curvature. Any scientist will look at this and think “no way is this a fluke”. Don’t let doubters trot out that coffee-time stuff about being able to fit anything with enough parameters. Firstly, that old chestnut is largely nonsense, and secondly, the fit quality is way beyond that.

Parfait. Everybody love parfait

And yet – outside the world of the CMB, the CDM paradigm has problems, as we were reminded here at ROE the day after Planck Day, in a nice wee coffee talk by Jorge Penarrubia.The best known problems are that CDM predicts far too many dwarf galaxies, and galaxy profiles that are much cuspier than observed,  but there are other claims, such as the existence of a very unlikely polar structure of dwarfs surrounding the Milky Way,  and of suspicious uniformities in galaxy rotation curves. All these problems may still get patched up by astrophysical fixes to do with feedback, IMF games, etc… but we don’t know yet.

Its common to hear people say that Particle Physics and Cosmology are in a similar situation – a model rather than a theory – a perfect fit but with no explanation. Why do all those parameters have those particular values? It seems so arbitrary. And what are dark matter and dark energy anyway? In this view, even the boringly successful fit is tantalising because it tells us there must be a deeper theory in waiting that will explain the perfect fit.

That may describe particle physics, but it doesn’t describe cosmology. Rather, what we have is perfect but fishy. How can the model be so perfect in some places and so poor in others? Have we missed something simple? It may well be that the astrophysical fixes do the trick, and then cosmology does look indeed like particle physics – successful but unsatisfying. Or it could be that some conceptual change is needed, and a revolution is waiting.

I’d give the revolution 2:1 against. But thats good enough odds that your eyes are glued to the table… Mesdames et Messieurs, faites vos jeux.

Wild Northern Skies

March 19, 2013

Only connect, as Goethe said. Or was it E.MForster? Or did I already already use that gag in an earlier post? Anyhoo. Two or so weeks ago commenters on my own nuclear blog post made me eat humble pie , liberally sprinkled with Thorium. Last week I was in Thurso, in the far distant north of our fair land. “Thurso” ought to mean  to Thor’s town, but sadly it doesn’t, actually meaning “Bull’s River” or some such. However, it is just down the road from Dounreay, for many years the home of Britain’s development programme in fast breeder reactors. The last Dounreay reactor, the “Prototype Fast Reactor” was shut down in 1994, but the plant still employs large numbers of people, because of the extended decomissioning programme. The aim is to return to a brownfield site by 2036..  Nuclear power ain’t simple. Also, the MoD still run some experiments there. Its all quite nicely explained in this wikipedia page on Dounreay.

Anyway, forMilky Way from Loch More, Caithness2012 Oct 7thGordon Mackie a such a remote area, with a population of a few tens of thousands, Caithness has a substantial sprinkling of high-tech and generally educated folk, who work for Dounreay and related activities, and an active and lively Astronomical Society – the Caithness Astronomy Group. These nice folk invited me up. Being in the distant north, it takes a whole day to get there even from Edinbrr, so I was there for several days, talking to multiple primary schools and doing a public talk as well as the usual astro-soc talk.

Caithness is a great place for amateur astronomy. Its as cloudy as most of Britain, but its DARK. When I asked the primary school kids who had seen a shooting star, 80% of the hands went up. I have never seen that in Edinburgh or London … and a large fraction of the populace have seen the Milky Way. You just walk out and there it is. The CAG chairbeing, Gordon Mackie, sent me the shot you can see to the left, taken at Loch More.

Aurora over Thurso CastleGordon Mackie2011 Aug 6th Caithness is also a great place for seeing the Northern Lights. Frustratingly, there was a massive CME arriving while I was there, but it was raining … Here is another Gordon Mackie shot to make up for it. Another ace astro-photographer is Stewart Watt. You can see his collection at “Under Highland Skies“.

But possibly the most exciting is Maciej Winiarczyk, who specialises in time-lapse astrophotography. He has lots of stuff on both YouTube and Vimeo. Take a look at this. But first pour a glass of Old Pulteney, sit back, and relax.

Oh, and its a nice place for a holiday.

Tricky Dick, Leicester’s own

February 5, 2013

Except he wasn’t of course. Just murdered and buried there, poor sod. He should be re-buried in Yorkshire. Anyhoo, by majority vote, the Leicester archaeology team did a fine job. It was all very exciting and splendid, and a lovely boost for my second Alma Mater… so of course here are a few carpings : (is carping a noun? Ed)

(1) Did you see the Channel 4 documentary? It was both fun and worrying – all that nervous weeping, buried-under-the-R stuff, and interviews with nutty Ricardians. I guess it was planned as a jokey look at over-keen amateurs and the usual “aren’t the eggheads funny”  stuff, presented by a comedian, but bugger me they spoiled the plot by actually finding the bastard. Still… it was enjoyable.

(2) Big press release before the paper is refereed? Oooohhh dear …. Martian meteorite anyone? As far as I can tell, the team did do a very thorough job, but you never know. Somewhere I saw some dark mutterings about “only thirty base pairs”. Where was that? Probably somewhere in the Grauniad, but unless @wikimir points me to the right page, I don’t know where to look. Anyway, with something as big as this, they probably had no choice.

(3) The only bit that grated for me was the  corporate wording of the announcement. “So, the academic conclusions of the University of Leicester are..”. Not, you’ll notice  “..the conclusion that I, learned scholar, have come to is…”. Boy those Leicester people have their scientists well trained ! There was me thinking that universities are multilithic cultures, convenient agglomerations of scholars. Well of course we are all under pressure, so one can’t blame an organisation for trying. My first Alma Mater and current employer has got about a quarter of the way towards house training Peter Higgs. But somehow I can’t help feeling it could be done with a little more subtlety. You don’t find starlets on chat shows saying “well, in my latest Warners Bros movie…” but somehow Warner Bros make a decent living …

More Java hair tearing

February 4, 2013

Another episode in the war between Apple and Java, with Mozilla/Firefox joining in. I almost wrote “The Alliance”, or maybe “The Axis Powers”. Who are the bad guys?

Late on Friday I got an email from the nice support folk at Liverpool Telescope, warning me that their Phase 2 GUI tool might stop working for me. Checking out their news item, its an issue for anybody using a Mac, and anybody using Firefox. They link to some news items here, here, and here. As usual, not only did Apple do this very suddenly, they did it WITHOUT TELLING THEIR CUSTOMERS. Stuff just stopped working.

My geekier readers will remember an earlier possibly somewhat alarmist post by moi, within the comment stream of which it became clarified that the problems concerned the Java plugin for web browsers, not regular Java Apps using the JRE.  Now the LT GUI is not an in-browser thing – its Java Webstart, which is just a fancy way of providing a link to the latest version of a Java App. Brief panic while I tried out Topcat and Aladin. If Topcat stops working I am fucked. (This is Mark Taylor’s evil plan of course). However, T&A are fine.

It seems Apple stopped any webby-Java things work using the Xprotect list, including webstart. I have no idea what Xprotect is. Alex, you now have permission to pontificate. I hear a dark rumour that if you know which plist to edit you can work round this.

Meanwhile, I have a virtual machine running Debian and the delightfully spartan Enlightenment window manager, and I can carry on loading up more PanSTARRS transients into the LT database…

Update Monday evening. Gets more confusing. The LT folk sent round an email saying that Apple had released a software patch, explained here, and available through the usual Software Update tool. However … no such update was offered to me…  After consulting a few users, it seems people 10.8 never saw a problem at all; those with 10.6 were totally blocked, but are now fixed by the patch; but those of us with 10.7 have not been offered a patch ?

Meanwhile I am playing with about eighteen different Linux window managers to see which one I like best.

Standing on a spinning rock

December 27, 2012

Another sixties icon passes beyond the veil : Gerry Anderson has gone to join Joe 90 and Torchy the Battery Boy in the sky. Guardian obituary here. First ever episode of Supercar here, and if you want to check out the purple page-boy haircuts and metallic mini-skirts, try Episode 1 of UFO here.

Meanwhile, an update on my Patrick Moore nostalgia post. The mysterious “Gareth” turned out to be my own nineteen year old son, who for Christmas bought me that a 1964 edition of The Observers Book of Astronomy, just as I remembered it!! What a nice boy. His sister bought me a very steam-punk sextant so it was a rather nice antique astronomical christmas.

Concrete experience is very important in science. (Bear with me, there shall be A Link). Theory has to be constantly checked and re-rooted in observed fact. But the concrete is also important at a simple human level. Its good to be reminded we are doing something real; science is not an abstract game. Its wonderful when you show people Saturn through a small telescope. Suddenly its really there – its not on TV, you can see it with your own eyes. Its right there, in that direction.

The Observers Book has a chapter about equipment, and stresses the importance of a good mounting, and preferably some kind of manual or clockwork drive. As Patrick says, when people first look through a reasonably high powered telescope, they never fail to be struck by how fast the stars are moving. Indeed. Then suddenly you realise – you actually physically feel – that you are standing on a huge rock which is spinning in space.

Count one, two. That spot you occupied one second ago – its now three hundred metres over there.

Well…. maybe now we need to think about the Earth’s orbit; the local solar motion; the orbit of the Local Standard of Rest around the Galactic Centre; the motion of the Galaxy with respect to the CMB; Mach’s Principle maybe … or maybe not. That will do. We stand on a spinning rock. And you can see it with your own eyes.

Farewell Patrick

December 10, 2012

Just flew back in from Texas to find that Patrick Moore died.  Here is Brian May’s very nice obituary. I am not one of the many astronomers who knew him personally, but I am one of the even larger number who was originally inspired by him. Here is the book in question :


Observers Book of Astronomy, 1964. Got it out of the library in Victoria Road, Margate. Its not there now. The library, not the book. I think its turned into flats.

A few years later I was a founder member of the Thanet Astronomical Society for Youth, along with the Sun Spaceman, aka Suthers, aka Mr Skymania. For some time meetings consisted of about five and a half spotty yoofs. Then somebody – probably Suthers himself – wrote to Patrick Moore and asked if he’d talk to us. He said yes, and our next meeting had two hundred people!

I remember this well, but what I never knew until today is that he stayed at Suthers house !! Its all explained in the Sun.  Scroll down to the bottom.

The End of The University : Part I

November 19, 2012

A few days back saw the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities. A pretty impressive list of luminaries are behind it, including some you would have expected – like Alan Bennett and  Richard Dawkins – and some you might not have – like John Cadogan and William Waldegrave.

Many people feel that academic values have been under persistent attack since the Thatcher era. Why the new feeling of crisis? Its not just the fees thing, or we Scots would be complacent. Its not just the “impact” thing – its pretty understandable and even good that we should feel some pressure to be relevant to UK PLC. No, its the student as customer thing. Take a look at the Browne report   – it really is quite scary. Stefan Collini’s LRB article  explains it all very well. Then if you want to be really frightened, look at the happy smiling faces at the Key Information Sets website   or the official KIS info at the unistats web site.

From now on, you see, student choice will magically drive up quality as long as we collect and publish information on how many toilets the library has and so forth. No need for the state to do anything!  All we need to do is give the seventeen year old kids some money, and let them spend it on the universities they reckon are best! Mmm.. sorry, whats that? How can they do that before they have any experience of what university education is actually like? Well, thats what the Key Information Sets are for!


Hope glimmers on the horizon

November 7, 2012

This will be a quick postette because I have eleven simultaneous deadlines and I am already late for most of them…

I trust most of my readers are smiling because of the good news from the US election. But its even better than you might think : it could be good news if you are a sane conservative, as well as if you are a warm hearted Liberal. Well, this may in fact be obvious, in that, as several of my American chums have pointed out, if you look at Obama’s policies he is actually pretty middle of the road. Eisenhower Republican? Is that the term I am looking for?

No, what I mean is that the crisis facing American conservatism may be lurching to a conclusion. As many commentators stressed today, that may be demographically unavoidable because African Americans and Hispanic Americans just don’t vote Republican. But much more fun, the Tea Party are going even more nuts than normal. Here is their reaction . I quote :

The new America has been built on the backs of takers, that is, those who take the entitlements but, do not produce. The Takers won tonight.

However, the Takers didn’t act alone. The question is: if the republicans cannot beat Obama after all of his crimes, fraud and treachery then the Republican Party does not deserve to exist and must be dealt with

OK. So what we need is a two-pronged attack :

  • We must bypass the lame stream media with truthful and accurate information.
  • We must tell the republican elephant party they have proven themselves useless and therefore must get out of our way.

Yes ! If they exit the Republican Party, we lose the fascist nutters, and get back to good old fashioned patrician bastards. Much better.