Science, Money, and Derring Do

July 11, 2013

Lots of readers for NAM and the Knife Edge, but only one comment. Maybe its a summer thing. The other Professor L expressed his surprise that I didn’t get whingeing about the Edinburgh footie victory.

Meanwhile, over in US-land, less than flat cash for the NSF is being hailed as a major victory. Typical government cuts are 5%, but NSF has “only” 2.1%. Thats before inflation folks. It includes $232M for Astronomy in FY2013, as we can see here. This is probably stage 7B in the 11 stage horse trading process or something. US politics and bureaucracy is very hard to follow. Anyhoo. I am crossing fingers for the LSST kick-off.

Back in the realm of her Brittanic Majesty, if you really want to see how research funding works, the NAO (isn’t that the Nautical Almanac Office? – Ed.) has released a very informative report which you can find here. I think the bottom line is that our R&D per unit GDP is slightly better than Kazakhstan or something like that. This perfectly simple flow diagram explains everything.

How R&D funding works in the UK

How R&D funding works in the UK

Because science funding is so depressing, I have been retreating into entertainment. Rather than my usual habit of finding old records, I went out and found some old books. I just read a 1930 copy of the 1916 book Greenmantle, the Ripping Yarn that John Buchan wrote after The Thirty Nine Steps. Its a spy story set in the middle of the First World War, climaxing at the battle of Erzerum. Interesting and confusing. I kind of expected an Edwardian book to be written in turgid and complicated sentences, kinda like Dickens or Scott I suppose, but in fact its in short punchy very lively style. It really rattles along. I also expected it to be jingo-istic and full of racist stereotypes. Well it is. But it is also full of surprising insights and sympathies for ordinary Germans, and for Islam. A very interesting post was written on this topic by Jeremy Calder at the Liberal England blog. I can’t say it better, so visit that if you are interested. It seems really surprising that Greenmantle has never been a movie.

NAM and the Knife Edge

July 5, 2013

pointer NAMcupwin Had a jolly few days at NAM2013, the annual UK astronomy jamboree. I gave two talks, a contributed talk and a plenary. This was hard work. Stress City. But I got through it and even enjoyed myself with a giant broom-pointer gag. Later the same day, the Edinburgh team won the NAM footie, beating St Andrews 6-1 in the final, so smiles all round this side of the Firth of Forth. Thanks to Duncan Forgan for the piccie.

Wednesday afternoon was the STFC community session. John Womersley gave an upbeat talks on the state of STFC but the community was left rather nervous. Here are a few key points :

  • Because of the upcoming election, the spending review is for 2015-16 only. The long term funding is all still to play for.
  • The science budget has its allocation (flat cash plus a teensy bit of extra capital) but the Research Council carve-up is still to come. My giant mop may be needed to clean up the blood.
  • The STFC budget result will come in September, same time as the STFC programmatic review outcome is announced. I guess this means that we still won’t know whats in and whats out…
  • Three years ago flat cash seemed like a victory. This time it could look more like disaster. The longer it continues, the more inflation erodes. As erosion continues, at first you just lose some soil – but there comes a day when the cliff collapses. Womersley uses a different metaphor. He said he is telling government that we are on a knife edge. There are rumours that ISIS may have to be mothballed. Wouldn’t make my high-pressure chums very happy…
  • JCMT is now up for sale. (See also SEN article). Meanwhile STFC are negotiating with two serious potential new owners for UKIRT. It seems unlikely this will conclude before the axe is due to fall in September, so there may be a temporary stay of execution.
  • We need to make the case to Government for our economic relevance. Well ok, we have all heard this again and again, but Wommers had a potentially important new idea. We need quantifiable metrics – somewhat along the lines that a road building project might use, quoting the number of commuter-hours saved and attaching a pound-note figure. This won’t be easy, but it really is necessary. You see, I think most politicians are already convinced that science is important, but this warm feeling doesn’t tell them whether they need to spend N pounds or 2N pounds or 0.5N pounds.

Well that will do. For those with a Research Fortnight subscription, there is an excellent article just out by James Wilsdon from Sussex with some interesting insight.

Meanwhile, just to show that it is technically possible to balance permanently on a knife edge, here is Emerson Lake and Palmer forty years on. A treat for prog rock fans. Janacek fans still divided.

Science in spending review : story so far

June 26, 2013

Quick off the mark Beeb summary here. The real McCoy here, for patient readers. (In standard government fashion, much blether and very repetitive…)

Headline (1) Science budget flat cash.  Could have been worse but not exactly good.

Headline (2) Capital budget increased – extra 500M 2015-16.

Detail (1) Increased capital budget is

…enabling significant investment in projects including autonomous robotics, Big Data, and major upgrades and new facilities at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus


Detail (2) : MRC budget apparently not moved to Department of Health.

Most important point… just the beginning boys and girls. Research Council carve-up not yet announced, and maybe not even fixed. Fate of QR (see Peter’s blog post from yesterday) and student finance etc still unknown. Gird your loins and buckle up your breastplate.

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?

Call Off Christmas

May 20, 2013

Some interesting “MOOCs will change everything” stuff on the webby-media today. Although I blogged about this a short while ago, I am tempted to have another go. But while I think about this, here is something much sillier.

The Royal Institution have decided to trademark the phrase “Christmas Lectures”. No really. If you give a lecture at Christmas, and advertise it as a Christmas Lecture, you may be breaking the law. Here is their official statement, and here is a blog post by Ian Gent explaining why it is a very bad idea, as well as an unjustified one. Those of who follow Mike Merrifield on Twitter will know that he is particularly miffed, being already booked to give a series of Christmas Lectures this year… The official statement includes an email address if you’d like to discuss this with the RI…

Well. We understand why they are doing it I suppose. But yea verily, it is an silly idea. Here is Alan Rickman in his classic impersonation of a stressed out RI Director :

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 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.

George, God, and the Grapefruit : Ten Things I Learned

March 21, 2013

Been watching the ESA Planck live press junket George show thingy. Well, everybody and his hairdresser will be writing up their well considered Planck thoughts over the next hour and a half, so I thought I would just summarise some personal lessons. The follow-on press release is here. Apparently there will be more serious stuff about lunchtime, and here in Embra our very own Andrew Liddle will give a seminar this afternoon. Actual science papers on ArXiv tomorrow. Meanwhile, lets keep it light.

The title is ruthlessly stolen from a a Tweet by Professor R.Ivison.

(1) George’s taste in ties continues to improve.

(2) George would give his children away for the Planck map. According to their Mum, they didn’t hear this because they are in school.

(3) The Universe is a bit like a grapefruit. Roundish, mostly very smooth, but with tinnsy-winnsy dimples

(4) When a Twitter hashtag starts trending, it becomes cloggged up with porno-tweets. This is annoying. Well, unless thats what you are after of course. (Am I missing some kind of filter?)

(5) You can’t mention God, unless you mention that you are not mentioning Him. Her. It.

(6) The Universe is EVEN MORE BORING than WMAP told us. Perfect fit to simple inflation.

(7) EXCEPT … for (a) the ten degree dip, and (b) the preferred direction, aka the axis of evil

(8) The axis of evil lines up with the ecliptic plane. Woahh !  But as ex-Edinbuggerer Tom Kitching said to me, that sounds like zodiacal dust… so maybe when that correction is improved the UNIVERSE IS EVEN MORE BORING

(9) The Hubble constant is exactly what Michael Rowan-Robinson told us years ago (67) without the aid of extreme coolants

(10) Talking of which, ESA say they created the coldest place in space, at 0.1K. Now that is definitely quite cute.

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.

Thorium Plug

February 27, 2013

As I emerged from my slumbers this morning, I absorbed the latest radio chatter about British Gas – investing wisely, or fleecing the consumer ? All a bit sensitive because of the Government “dash for gas”, what with those EDF Frenchies sueing protesters and so on. (See this Monbiot article). Contrast yesterday morning, when Sue Ion was featured on the rather wonderful Life Scientific. I came across her on PPARC Council when I did my tour of duty – she was a sane and useful voice. (Wommers – get her back !)   She is a stalwart of BNFL, and made a strong case for a mixed energy strategy, with off-shore wind accompanying nuclear. Many greenies are reluctantly backing nuclear – despite its problems,  a window is closing, and we may have no choice.

Meanwhile I am finally reading a book I got for Christmas – Physics of the Future by Michio Kaku. Mostly this is about nanobots and tricorders and ubiqitous computing in our socks and so on, but there is also a chapter about energy, which is distinctly less upbeat than the rest of the book, and indeed may make the rest of the book pointless as civilisation collapses. Kaku is a fan of the hydrogen economy, and that may cure us of our oil addiction,  but of course you need an energy source behind it. Kaku assumes that it pretty much has to be nuclear, but starkly spells out the problems – dealing with waste, and nuclear weapons proliferation.

So what puzzles me is – why does nobody ever mention Thorium? Since the 1940s we have known two things. (1) Molten salt reactors have many advantages over fuel rods – no meltdown problem, no high pressures, basically far safer. (2) Using the Thorium fuel cycle has to be the best way to go. You bombard  Th-232 with neutrons and get U-233, which is the fissile material. Thorium is much more abundant than uranium, there is much less waste, the lifetime is much shorter, and there is no weapons grade material for terrorists to steal.

So now we get to the depressing part. That last advantage is why governments are not interested – there is no weapons grade by-product. It seems to be why the US government abandoned this technology in the 1970s. We are ignoring the technology that will save civilisation because we want bombs. Hey, wouldn’t it be easy to solve the Iran dilemma ? “We only want nuclear technology for peaceful purposes”. “Okey dokey – here, have this LFTR design. Its dead easy, You don’t need any of those tricky centrifuges! Our guys can come over and help you build it.”

Here is a wikipedia page about the Thorium fuel cycle, and here are two useful web sites about sane nuclear energy : here, and here

Interestingly, the two governments that are investing in this technology are China and India. I feel the future-train whistling past our ears.

Tieless in Gaza

February 7, 2013

Party at Professor P’s house last night. We were celebrating our three new appointments and bonding and stuff. Three? Well, our REF gamble is going to work, don’t you know. Of course one of those three is what our American chums call “Faculty shuffle” – or perhaps electron-hole jumping in a a semiconductor is a better analogy. Professor H went orff to Imperial; Prof L left Sussex to come here; Professor C left Cardiff to fill the hole in Sussex. Professor WT had already left Cardiff City for Preston North End, so things might get exciting in Wales.

I was a bit late because I had been gulping vino at government expense at the Scottish Parliament, where there was a reception attached to an exhibition about the Large Hadron Collider. (You can see the exhibition on Parliament TV ! Check out the “Partical Physicist”) Earlier in the day, Wommers had I understand been giving the Science and Technology Committee a pitch on how good this stuff is for the Scottish Economy. He also gave a wee speech at the reception of course, but was correctly upstaged by the (late) appearance of Peter Higgs. Yesterday I referred to Peter as being “quarter house trained” but really should have explained that Peter has  got it just right. He allows himself to be paraded around and lionised wherever this is good for science, but never loses his shyness, modesty and general nice guyness. In his speech he basically told us to be proud of the engineers who built the LHC. He did also apologise for all the work that “we theoreticians” had put them too. Wommers picked up on this but added that he wasn’t so sure about “who-ever invented supersymmetry”.

More than one person raised an eyebrow at my lack of tie at this august gathering. OK, couldn’t resist the title. Never read Milton, but a big Aldous Huxley fan. Not that I am suggesting that at the reception I was in chains and pulled down the temple and all that. Just got a few sniffy looks.  Later at Professor P’s party, Dr F said that I shouldn’t go thinking of myself as a dangerous radical, otherwise I would have worn a skirt.