Cosmic Treat

December 21, 2011

Thanks to the nice folks at Snag Films, I learn that yesterday was the fifteenth anniversary of Carl Sagan’s death. You can watch the first episode of the famous COSMOS series here. It starts with an advert, but thats why its free folks.

Carl Sagan ain’t as pretty as Brian Cox, and I would say Brian is actually better at making abstract things simple and concrete; but no-one can beat Sagan at the cosmic poetry.

Feverish imaginings

February 23, 2011

Last week I gave a popular talk about Active Galaxies, part of the ROE Winter Talks series. Good turn out, some sharp questions, and if there were any nutters they were keeping quiet. Pleasant evening. If you want to see the slides, they are available at the jolly ole personal web page. You won’t get the full effect though, as I like interspersing the pretty pix with impersonations of the Doppler Effect, and demonstrations of Gravity Power by dropping things on me foot etc etc. Rule number one : do everything in threes. Rule number two : wake ’em up every so often. I think of this as a variant on Brechtian alienation. Rule number three : never patronise. Simple is good, colourful analogies bad. This is why P.B.Cox is so good I think. He’s very concrete, and tells the truth.

Every so often of course you show some gaudy picture of a black hole swallowing stuff or such like. Its good at this point to pause and look ’em in the eye and say “… you do know this is an artist’s impression, right ? Wish we had data that good … Anyway…”. Today on the interwebs I came across a wonderful example of runaway impressionisation, if thats the word I want, in a Gemini press release. This reports what looks like a rather nice piece of work by Sylvain Veilleux and others; a GMOS IFU observation of a high velocity conical wind flowing out of nearby Active Galaxy MKN 231. (I think its the nearest BAL QSO ..)

Exhibit A : the actual data.

Some of the squares look a bit different from the other squares.

Some quite interesting data.

MKN 231 in all its horrific glory

Exhibit B : artistic rendering.

Crikey. I’m standing well back from that, mate.

The beast up close

MKN 231, an artist's crude approximation

Hmm. Thinks. Can I get that Lynette Cook to knock me up a really scary warped disk ? Thats what Martin and I should have had for this paper.

Medium Sized is Beautiful but Too Expensive

April 6, 2010

The election starting gun has been fired, and of course the most important issue is who will be least Nasty to Science, as Adam Rutherford explains in the Grauniad. I will listen carefully because Adam is nearly as good looking  as Brian Cox, and The Cell was possibly even better than the Wonders of the etc etc. Anyhoo. Perhaps more later.

The real news of the day of course was that Astronet has released its review of what Europe should do with its 2-4m telescopes in the 8m age. I have only skimmed this long report so far, but it seems well thought out and realistic.  Scientifically it goes for wide field spectroscopy, echelle spectroscopy, NIR imaging, and the time domain, but also emphasises the need for keeping flexible general purpose facilities – for innovation, for high risk proposals, and for training.

UK readers will nod despairingly, because we are in the process of trying to shut everything down except ESO and a dim vision of ELT and SKA. This feels inevitable  but somehow not quite right – many of the most impressive results of recent years have been made by small telescopes and MIDEX missions. But of course we can’t just stubbornly refuse to shut old things down. The Astronet panel realise this, and know well that countries across Europe are looking to reduce the money spent on smaller facilities, not re-invest in them.

So they do a careful cross match of current capabilities with their scientific goals, and the conclusion is pretty obvious. We need several facilities, but not all of them. Its crying out for a Europe-wide rationalisation. They also do a pretty hard nosed analysis of what saves money and what doesn’t. They conclude that you only save money if (a) you reduce the quality of service, and (b) put things under a single management. Other things – conversion to survey mode, time swapping – don’t save money. Some things – sharing base facilities, sharing support staff – can save money in principle, but if only if you establish a single management and get ruthless. Meanwhile they also recommend a single European Time Allocation Committee.

Sounds great but politically difficult. They do not suggest that ESO should just take it all over. They don’t have a political solution except to recommend that a small technical team is appointed to start an implementation study. I wonder what STFC will make of this.

Where there’s a will there’s a way. Is there a will ?

Canossa revisited : Science, State, and Religion

March 31, 2010

I expect you all saw @ProfBrianCox on @Wossy. Thats Twitterspeak for Brian Cox on the Jonathan Ross show . I think. New at this stuff. Anyway, it was j.good. Everybody loved the will-he won’t-he finger in the liquid Nitrogen thing. Rather more Dr Bunhead than Carl Sagan if you know what I mean, but hey that’s good. My favourite moment was a little more serious. Ross suddenly asked Cox whether he was atheist, religious, agnostic or what. Brian paused slightly and then stated that personally he was comfortable living with uncertainty, and that was what science gave you. Well, spot on, but of course he didn’t actually answer the question. Part of me thought this was chickening out, and part of me thought it was very wise. It didn’t rule out Einstein style cosmic pantheism, and didn’t criticise anybody’s personal choices, but left you to work out for yourself that religion is a crutch you don’t need. But do we need to take sides ? A year in the USA reminded me that millions of people believe that science is the enemy of religion; not because science is intrinsically evil, but because it is part of a secular state which limits their freedom to teach their children what they wish.

My Christmas reading included Millenium by Tom Holland. Set at a time when people were deeply religious and thought the world was about to end, the central story is about the battle for authority between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope. The turning point was when the excommunicated Henry IV crawled to the castle at Canossa in 1077 to do penance. Pope Clement kept him waiting outside the gate, in his hair shirt, for several days before admitting him to an audience. This established papal supremacy. At least thats what Mr Holland told me.

I thought of this as the Catholic Church child abuse scandal kept rolling on. The jaw dropping thing is not that priests did those awful things, but that the Church felt it was above the law, and had no need to hand the guilty over to Caesar. For a while it looked like Pope Benedict would have his Canossa-in-reverse in Ireland, as the pressure grew for him to publicly grovel. But the result was still an expression of regret for the crimes committed by others, and sympathy for the pain felt by victims – not an apology for covering everything up.

Meanwhile it seems, the same US states that legislate for a requirement to teach religious scepticism concerning evolution, also wish to insist on scepticism concerning global warming. (See this NY Times article.) Why ? Does the Bible say that changes in climate are not anthropogenic ? Don’t think so. I think its because in Christian minds, science is at the core of a rational secular state which wishes to squash their culture and remove their freedom to believe. Even our academic humanist colleagues think there is an unhealthy bias towards the state funding of science.

Right now many physicists are tempted to see the State as a barbarian force intent on squeezing out the pursuit of truth and replacing it with the pursuit of gold, even making the production of gold the test of value for scientific activity. Well we all know the dangers, but its really only fine tuning. The religious zealots are right. We are at the heart of the military industrial complex.  Government knows the value of science. Since radar and the bomb, we get lots of money. You think thats because the goverment think we are fine men and women and deserve to have an undisturbed life of enquiry ?   We are public servants. Our paymasters want as much as they can for their money. Whats more, they are not obliged to see science as a single block.

The Government is minded to appoint a Minister for Life Sciences. Now stop obsessing about UKSA and worry about that instead.

Minister for Space anyone ?

More than coincidence ? Part II

January 30, 2008

Some weeks back I drew to your attention (along with about three thousand other bloggers) to the eery appearance of the previous Pope in a bonfire, and the spooky similarities between Anglo-Saxons and Angled Saxophones. A few days back I reported Omar Almaini’s contention that Keef Mason is actually Chas from Chas and Dave. For the avoidance of doubt, I present the evidence:

Keith Mason with astronomical chums

Chas from Chas and Dave

It now seems that Omar’s detective juices are continuing to flow; he has discovered that our hero Brain Cox and the apparently inferior crooner James Blunt are actually the same person. See for yourself:

reamboat Brain Cox

Crooner and Military Superhero James Blunt

Well I needed cheering up. I’ve got a cold and the STFC cuts are getting me down. There is an upside. Since converting my blog into astro-politics, the readership has zoomed up. Monday I broke a thousand page views on one day for the first time ever. The wordpress stats are not that sophisticated so I have no idea if this is a thousand people or five nutters looking at their favourite bits again and again and again and again. Probably somewhere logarithmically in between.

Omar Almaini is eighty three.

DIUS on a sticky wicket

January 16, 2008

During the whole STFC-cuts-crisis thingy, a controversial issue has been the question of who knew when just how bad this would be. Was it just an STFC cock-up, or did the Minister know it would be bad, and still not give them enough money ? Through a combination of logic and gossip, I think most of us pretty much knew the answer. My take on this was set out in this wee playlet on December 14th. But now we have proof, cos a bunch of intrepid particle physicists got all the right documents out of STFC using the Freedom of Information Act. The key documents are loaded up here. They show clearly that STFC warned DIUS pretty clearly several times. This doesn’t mean the Minister(s) knew of course. They would have been relying on their officials.

Excellent work by our particle physics chums, followed up swiftly by a piece on the Today programme this morning at 0845. (For those who didn’t catch the Today programme this morning, you can listen again here.) D:reamy Brian Cox tried to explain the difference between Resource, Near Cash and Non Cash to Sarah Montague. Quantum Field Theory might have been easier.

Brian is available for weddings and barmitzvahs.