Gird your loins

August 10, 2010

Your correspondent finds himself this week in the Arizona desert, at the LSST All Hands Meeting. Of course, our brave effort last year to convince STFC to fund a UK participation came to nought. Close but no cigar. Well, actually, nowhere near a cigar, not even a quick drag on someone else’s ciggy. Strangely though the LSST folk are still chummy so some Brits get invited. As well as mineself, the awfully nice and quite tall Chris Lintott is here and gave a splendid plenary talk on the Zooniverse and why LSST needs it. He did use the word “synergy” in his talk, but immediately apologised.

On Friday morning at 0800 we will all assemble to watch a webcast from Washington DC, for yea, this will be the moment in time when the conclusions of Astro2010, aka the decadal survey, will be unveiled. The pdf file will be released at the same time. Apparently the agencies (NSF, NASA, DOE etc) have had the report since August 3rd. They are doing some quick sums, cos they know they are going to get asked questions, and want to be ready. There are one or two NSF types here but they are playing a very straight bat. Except they don’t know that’s what they are doing, because they don’t speak cricket. Anyway, back in the UK you too can watch the show : check it out here. Kickoff is at 1600 BST.

In discussing the funding prospects, Sidney Wolff quoted Riccardo Giacconi as saying that a successful big project needs to think about the science, the technology, and the politics – in that order. Miss one out and you fail. Get them in the wrong order and you fail. In the UK just now we are worrying about the political spin for our whole subject rather than just one project. The Big Question is “do we deliver for the economy ?”. A marvelous contribution to this debate, and a very well timed one, has just been delivered by the Royal Astronomical Society – a report called Big Science for the Big Society on how astronomy has an impact on society at large. It is a marvelous piece of work, and I urge you to read it and pass a copy to your local MP. Who knows if it will work, but its an honest and powerful piece of PR.

Pre-holiday miscellany

July 23, 2010

In a few hours I will be in an internetless Cornish cottage. Assorted thoughts are buzzing about the front of my head that might otherwise have turned into blog posts.

Astro2010: the Hour Approacheth. The US Decadal Survey of Astrophysics has had its final committee meeting (see picture ) and they are beavering away writing the report. I hear the report will emerge during early to mid August. I think somebody even told me the date, but I’ve forgotten. Who wins, LSST or GSMT ? Which version of GSMT gets favoured ? The one ELT can interbreed with or the other one ?

CSR : are we dead or what ? The results of the Comprehensive Spending Review won’t be know for some time, but STFC are gearing up for the bad news, and asking for input to spending review plans. Possibly this news item isn’t blunt enough. So much of STFC’s money is tied up in subscriptions, operating major facilities like Diamond, and committed big projects, that a fairly spread 25% cut is basically impossible. Please choose between astronomy and particle physics.

Women in Science. There ain’t enough women in science, especially in the upper reaches. Its been puzzling many of us for years.This article in the Huffington Post describes some interesting new ideas that smell right. Its not that they ain’t smart enough. Its not that they get squeezed out by sexism. Its that they get put off by science being too ego driven and aggressive. Smells right to me. If we can fix that, the science workplace will be better for all of us.

Buttons. Buttons puzzle me. Not the sort that do coats up. The sort you press to take action. They seem so natural, but there ain’t none in nature. How can we have evolved to instinctively know to press buttons ? We love buttons. Desmond pushes the button every two hours to save the earth . We can’t resist pushing buttons even if we are told not to. People push placebo buttons. I found an interesting discussion at an anarchist philosophy forum which I shall quote from :

If you put a bird in a cage with a button that he has to peck in order to be fed, he’s gonna try pecking it and he’s gonna be fed. Birds don’t stumble on such buttons in nature: this is not hard-coded. But make the correlation more vague and the bird will develop superstitions, just like human beings do. They were not taught to be superstitious. There is no bird parent out there going “well, sometimes when I swirl around to the left five times, food magically appears.

There’s another PhD thesis for somebody. Well anyhoo. Time to do nothing for a week or so.

Shank’s Pony versus Decadal Supertanker

March 30, 2009

It looks like Tom Shanks is gearing up for the rumoured review of UK ground-based facilities. This is is what some of his cryptic allegories refer to. Meanwhile the US Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics in full swing. The community involvement is intense. Considerable numbers of people are involved in the various panels and sub-panels of course, but there are also multiple open submission requests – for white papers on science, on the state of the profession, on theory and computation, and for information on “activities” i.e. telescopes, missions, laboratories etc. As with the European Astronet Roadmap process, the idea was to debate the science first, and concrete facilities later.  The science white paper deadline already passed, and resulted in 334 submissions. These make fascinating reading, or at least the tiny fraction I have dipped into do so. The “State of the Profession” call was also intriguing, producing 69 submissions. Some of these are pleading for special areas of expenditure, like the ballooning program, or “Strategic Theory” but others cover a strange variety of topics, including the loss of physical contact with telescopes, open source software in astronomy (see Sarah’s post), and the energy consumption of astronomers. This last one, led by Brit ex-pat Phil Marshall, also has an associated wiki site, where you can sign up to be a supporter. The general conclusion is that we travel too much so we should have more virtual meetings. I am thinking of re-creating Aspen in Second Life and charging you all for coming to my Institute. What d’you think ? Bicycles free of course.

There are two calls open now – one for white papers on Technology Development, Computation, Theory, and Laboratory Astrophysics, and another for information on “activities”. The latter is a two stage process. At first anybody can submit anything; but then the panel will request more detail on some activities… This is where the blood will start to flow, as the tension rises on the big ticket items – TMT, SKA, LSST etc. So at the end of the day the process will be intensely political, but people have really tried to focus on the science questions first; and absolutely nobody has an excuse to say they weren’t asked, or its all a stitch up etc.

Its a very expensive process; directly in terms of panel members time and associated administration, and even more in terms of how many community brain-hours are used up, that could have been spent writing papers for the Astrophysical Journal.  Could the right answers be concluded much more efficiently with a few wise heads in a room ? This is the problem that STFC will face again….