Particle Astrophysics and the Sponge House of Doom

January 31, 2011
The Sponge House of Doom

Culross Palace, aka the Sponge House of Doom

As the bard said, the best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft awry. Of course, if you are the Princes Serendip, ye gang doon that path, and find a Grand Adventure.

Number one child is home, on a strange St Andrews style post exam holiday. Californian boyfriend is here too. He expressed a desire to locate Blair Castle, as it might have some connection with his family. A click or two later, Google Maps had us sorted. It was suprisingly close – just over the Forth Road Bridge and turn left. We stepped on the gas and headed towards his heritage.. Well, omitting some tiresome details, an hour or so later we had discovered there are in fact two Blair Castles. Blair-Castle-A , home of Clan Murray, is a 13th century monster brooding over the edge of the Highlands. It is crawling with suits of armour and tourists and so forth. Blair-Castle-B , where we had pitched up, is a Regency Villa, sandwiched between tracts of decayed industrial wasteland, and since 1927 has been a convalescent home for Scottish miners. You can read about its history here, but you can’t go in.

However, we found ourselves on the edge of Culross, which turned out to be the most stunning town : a 16th century time capsule, staring across the Forth at the Grangemouth refinery. It is crammed full of perfect ancient ghosts. The best is Culross Palace, which manages to look simultaneously beautiful and kinda like a giant orange sponge cake. It was shut, so instead the kids fantasised about being swallowed up by the sponge house of doom and never emerging. Next we went to the pub, and then as darkness fell, we roamed around the crumbling Abbey and spooked ourselves. A marvelous day and all by happy accident.

I found myself ruminating on a conversation with M who had complained that particle astrophysics is taking over our subject and killing it, especially in the US. To get big money these days you have to be doing a giant physics experiment with your telescope. You can’t just aim to understand stars, or galaxies, or quasars. You have to be claiming to measure w, or testing strong field gravity. All very nice, but these things are very expensive. As we head towards the funding wall, all we can afford is one or two giant physics experiments.

Astronomy has had a big impact on our understanding of the laws of physics, but, M claimed, this has never been as a result of naive experimental intention. It has always emerged as a happy accident from studying the contents and behaviour of the cosmos – universal gravity from the orbit of the moon, quantum tunneling from the burning of the stars, dark matter from the rotation of galaxies, dark energy from trying to measure q0 and so on.  What we need to do is to encourage diversity, try to understand our surroundings, and keep an open mind.

Of course, that may be a hard sell to funding panels.

Shovel ’em through

January 28, 2010

Saturday I went to Andy T’s Burns Night party. Lots of haggis, singing, and this year he had a piper. Fine evening. Brendan (who turned out to have a splendid singing voice) asked me why the blog entries were slowing down. The answer I gave was that I am swamped with first year teaching at the moment.

Its a big class – a hundred and eighty or so. Sometimes it feels like battery teaching. Crowd all those bodies into one room; force feed ’em a sequence of words, pictures, and numbers; shovel ’em back out; collect degree, start life. University checks balance sheet. Academic revises learning outcomes checklist. Groan.

Other times its a shining joy. Two hundred young things drinking in your words, as you reveal the secrets of the Universe. Beat that for a job. What I really like is the feeling of putting power in their hands. This is not quite astronomy-for-poets. Its mostly for hard science types – chemists, engineers, geologists, as well as physicists – so you can use an equation or two. You show a picture of a distant spiral galaxy. How could you possibly imagine you could know anything about this distant patch of light you can’t touch ? Then you wheel out Newton’s laws, a bit of Doppler effect, and … zap …. mass of galaxy and discovery of dark matter. Look what we did.

This is a lesson for life, and the importance of science. You can master the world. This is why the Government should pay for us.

Gettng ready for the next lecture, I picked up the local student newspaper. There I found an article about that nice Mr Mandelson, and how we wants us to save money by doing degree courses in two years. Academics all over the land are recoiling in horror. Standards forced down even more ! The education-factory wins and the temple of inspiration loses.

Woah there, Captain Jumpy. Is there an opportunity here ? Now that we are teaching 40% of the population rather than the 5% of those long lost elder days, of course standards have to go down. What did you think ? And why is this bad ? Don’t a large fraction of the populace deserve some advanced education ? Isn’t that good for the country ? But how do we do this without losing the truly advanced education needed for working engineers and research scientists ?

In Scotland history has left us an interesting range of degree qualifications – as well as honours degrees, there are ordinary degrees and general degrees. For years they have been seen as compensatory qualifications for the failed. But why should they not be positive intentions, and proud successes when won ? So I have often been tempted by the idea of a designed pyramid. Take in a huge number of students at year-1, and take in gradually fewer each successive year. It shouldn’t be a failure to not go on to the next year; it should be an achievement if you win it competitively; and you are not obliged to try. Year-1, Diploma; Year-2, General degree; Year-3, ordinary degree in named subject; Year-4, honours degree; Year-5, Masters degree; Year-8, PhD.

Every year you exit with a piece of paper. Every one a winner.