Fat, Oil Rich, and Comfortable : but not for long

April 23, 2010

Halfway through the latest leaders debate, I got an uncomfortable feeling of detachment. It was when they were asked about passion in politics. For some years, there has been soul searching about the declining turnout rate in elections, and widespread feeling that “they are all the same”. The problem I think is that nothing much is wrong in our lives. There is nothing really big to argue about, no sides to take.

A thousand years ago it was the Church versus the Empire. Five hundred years ago it was freedom of belief. A hundred years ago it was the liberation of the working man. In my youth this titanic struggle was still rattling the world if not shaking it. But thats all over. Socialism is a spent force. We are all rich fat and comfortable; we have TVs, fridges and iPhones; so whats the problem ? If miners are not starving, and no children are being sent up chimneys, and we have universal healthcare (ahem…), nobody cares too much. Even if you feel that voting is a civic responsibility, its hard deciding. You can’t decide by asking “am I one of them or one of us ?”. You have to look at all the damned policies and take an average.

What really matters now ? The rising tide of irrationality ? Well thats scary, but I think we’ll be ok. Climate change ? Well, yes but … as I argued here , maybe its irrelevant because civilisation will collapse soon anyway when the oil runs out . Old chum Alan Penny wrote a strong rebuttal of my pessimistic mutterings, but now I am getting worried again…

As explained in a recent Guardian article, in a Financial Times blog, and this posting in Counter Currents, the US military and the UK government are starting to understand that peak oil may be an imminent reality. This article argues that the US Energy Secretary, Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu, has felt this for some years. So it seems that privately the powers that be are starting to take this very seriously. But publicly ? Why isn’t Nick Clegg saying “OK, relax on Trident. We got bigger problems…”

A crunch may be coming. Not only will oil run out, but uranium too, and phosphorous, and so food.

As Tolstoy said, what then must we do ?

Reading list
Peak Oil

The Oil Drum

Peak generation

Peak oil on wikipedia

Sci Vote Mismatch

April 13, 2010

Warning : grumpy posting.

I arrived in London this morning and bought the Guardian. Front page news was the arrival of the lovely new Manifestos from Labour and the Conservatives . The Labour manifesto cover is just so socialist realist. Its a hoot. Anyhoo. In the Science net-o-sphere several blargs and columns have already tried to decode what they say about science – eg Mark Henderson at the Times, and Nick Dusic at the S-Word. General consensus seems to be that the Tory one is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and the Labour one promises a “ring-fence” but doesn’t mention the height of the fence as it were.  Is there actually a significant boffin vote ? Or are we hoping that basically Jane Public will vote for more Brian on the telly ?

Thumbing through my Guardian, I found the G2 section had an article called “How Science became cool” with several nice short pieces by Brian Cox, Martin Rees, Tim Radford and others. (The online version is here ). My favourite is by comedian Dara O’Briain. I didn’t know that he was such a geek. The most puzzling was by Kevin Fong, because his header said he was an astrophysicist, but the footer said he was a lecturer in physiology. Cor. Cool dude.

I found myself pondering two things. One. How does P.B.Cox get any real work done these days ? Two.  Yet again we see public displays of interest are about two thirds due to astronomy and particle physics. And one third genetics.

Conversely last week there was a very nice letter to the Times by a starry array of FRS bigwigs, which was all about how investment in science in general is crucial for a high technology twenty first century economy … but the list of signatories was heavily dominated by astronomers and particle physicists.

There is some kind of reality mismatch here. Is there much evidence that The Government has been mean to Science In General ? Not really. Is there evidence that The Government has been mean specifically to Astronomy and Particle Physics ? Yup. Do the politicians notice who is bitching ? Are the public stupid ? Don’t answer the last two questions.

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 ?