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?


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.


Euclid officially official

June 20, 2012

Maybe you all thought Euclid had already been selected. Well sort of. Yesterday the ESA Science Programme Committee  “adopted” Euclid, so its now officially official and all systems go. Here is the Beeb story.

I am on the Euclid consortium and must get round to doing something useful sometime. I am just realising it should be rather groovy for transients so maybe something in that line. I like big flares of the sleeping black hole variety.

Of course being on the Euclid consortium is not altogether special. There are about nine hundred of us.  I think I read somewhere that it is the biggest astronomical consortium in the history of the Outer Galaxy or something like that. Is this a good thing ?


All systems JUICE

May 2, 2012

So the SPC has done its thing. Vast petitions and stern letters nothwithstanding, they have chosen JUICE and its all systems go for launch in 2022. Jupiter here we come. The official announcement is here. There’s some coverage already at the Beeb, and at Skymania. Always quick off the mark that Suthers. Andrew Coates and Michelle Dougherty do a splendid job on the embedded video at the Beeb article and wax lyrical about Life Under The Ice. Who wouldn’t want to check that out ?

There is also an article at Physics World including quotes from yours truly. You will note I have been nice about everybody. Except NASA of course.

So thats it for now. X-rated astronomers and gravy fans have a year to gird their loins. Who wants to open a book ?


Memory and Theft

April 29, 2012

Sunday. Trying to work up the enthusiasm to write another post about the Juicy Athena Gravy story, but not quite sure how to do it without consulting lawyers first. Apparently if you speak Italian this article is significant. I don’t know what to make of it, but coffee room gossip is that Private Eye would.

So I finished the book I was reading instead – Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Beautiful but very sad. Gets very mixed reviews I see but I was gripped. It has a science fiction setting but is really about love, the difficulty of expressing what you feel, and how you cope with the inevitability of loss.

So next I tried ironing and music, always a combination that perks me up, as the mindlessness of ironing allows channels to open that the busy mind will often block. I picked “Mellow Gold” by Beck. Mostly I associate Beck with a kind of punk nihilism, but sometimes he is hypnotically surreal. My favourite is “Steal My Body Home”. I really don’t quite know what its about, but like the Ishiguro book, it reeks of emotional dissociation. I refrain from pointing out the grimmer more accidental link.


Turbulence in the gravy waves

April 23, 2012

So the Athena folk are somewhat miffed at being pipped by Juice. (This metaphor doesn’t seem quite right ? Ed.) But what about Horse Number Three ? Aren’t the NGO folk doing a Grand Petition ? Nope. It seems their tactic is a semi-formal complaint about inadeqacies in the process : an email letter direct to Gimenez. I am not sure how widely it has been circulated, but I understand it is stern stuff, bringing up issues of inappropriate revisions of costings and risk factors, and inadequately resolved conflicts of interest. Feel free to comment if you have clear knowledge, but please (a) do not leak things that are confidential, and (b) keep coments about process and not about individuals.

Its not really clear what competition means when a very small number of items is under consideration, and moreoever each item represents one community-segment, each of which ESA wishes to foster and support. Can you really leave it to peer review and some element of chance ? Nobody is both competent and neutral with respect to such huge basic choices. Why not accept that a well meaning Executive just has to  make a plan and stick with it, after taking advice ? To some extent what makes the current situation hard to swallow is the illusion of choice by peer review, rather than its weaknesses.

This wasn’t supposed to be a problem. Long standing ESA tradition is that M-class missions are genuine choices but Cornerstones / L-class missions are a slowly emerging plan. Everything gets done; its just a question of when. A year or two back, the plan was clear : we could do three halves, shared with NASA : LAPLACE, LISA, IXO. Then NASA pulled out of all of them. So now we have enough money for one and a half L-class missions instead of three. Athena, NGO, and Juice are all somewhat descoped compared to their parents. For example, ESA was going to do Ganymede and NASA would do Europa. But apparently Europa is the expensive bit because it has a horrible radiation field. So Juice will do a kind of quick day trip to Europa as I understand it, scooting back before the electronics gets fried. Anyhoo, costs are down but we still can’t do three.

We can do the usual ESA trick of slowing things down. Step round the board for a few more subscription rounds, passing GO and collecting 200 pounds each time. However, this gets you less than you think : because of standing army issues, the costs go up too. Plus, we can’t wait for ever. Its time for Cosmic Visions to finish and the next plan to emerge.

Net result : there will be an L2 competition, but no L3 competition. Things could get even tenser … NGO may seem the obvious choice to ESA because they have already invested in LISA Pathfinder, and its just a more radical advance. Thats why I think it has been really important to show that Athena serves a huge community.


X-ray astronomy crunch

April 19, 2012

I got an email this morning from old chum Paul Nandra. You may not be surprised because about eight squillion of you got the same email. In fact I also got it yesterday from Andy Fabian, and also via the Euclid mailing list (followed by a knuckle rapping from Yannick reminding us that the Euclid mailing list is for Euclid business…)

The email asked us to sign the Athena petition set up by Paul, who these days is King of German X-ray Astronomy, following Gunther’s retirement to Hawaii. Athena is a giant X-ray telescope, and has been on the shortlist of three for the L-class mission in ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme for some years. It descends from IXO, but our US chums pulled the plug on that. The other two rivals are NGO (which used to be LISA, and is  gravy wave thing) and JUICE (which used to be Laplace, and is a Jupiter moon thing). As explained in this BBC article, the tortuous decision process is almost done : the Space Science Advisory Committee has recommended JUICE. The fat lady in this case is the Science Policy Committee, so there is still a chance the decision could be reversed. Hence the petition.

The response has been pretty impressive – over 1100 signatures already. I think people see this as an issue for astrophysics, as well as specifically for X-ray astronomy. However, it seems a pretty faint hope. It just ain’t the way ESA thinks; Gaia is about to get launched; and Euclid and Solar Orbiter have just been selected as M-class missions. ESA-think is that it must be the turn of planetary astronomy. Furthermore SPICA (joint IR mission with JAXA) is underway, and LOFT (another X-ray concept) is still in contention for another M-class mission.

Still… the point is that Athena is the Big Hope for X-ray astronomy for many many years to come. Not running with it feels like closing down X-ray astronomy. So at minimum, it seems the right thing to do to register one’s distress.

Personally I would rather go for a smaller monitoring / transient projects like Lobster or EXIST but they seem to have failed to get a foot in the door too.

Fundamentally, the problem is that X-ray astronomy has hit the funding wall. Everything gets inexorably bigger and more ambitious. Eventually its all or nothing… so when the answer is nothing … ah.


Astronomical Isolation

December 14, 2011

So what will the euro-zone veto fuss do to astronomy ? Anything ?

I have just been checking for new service data on a ESO-VLT project I have. My student is doing stuff with ESA Herschel data. Lots of us are glowing happily and emailing our Italian and French friends because Euclid got selected. I just submitted another Euro-VO FP7 proposal with a variety of European chums. At project meetings, being “Europe” as opposed to “the UK” is often crucial. The Americans take us much more seriously. Hey, we are all European astronomers now. Aren’t we ?

Joining ESO was a difficult debate in the UK. Many UK astronomers have always felt more comfortable with our US and Australian friends. They speak our language (more or less), and have a kind of rugged and ambitious approach that we like. On the other hand, our French and Italian friends sometimes seem more, you know, sophisticated. In other words we are typical Brits. We can’t decide if we are cultured Europeans or part of some grand Brittanic gung ho civilisation. Even as I write, my instincts are mostly with ESO and ESA, but I am also part of a lobby thats just dying to be part of LSST.

Right now, European politicians and newspapers seem to be saying “thank goodness ! We never liked them anyway !” Are our European astronomy chums secretly irritated with us all this time ? I should point out that neither ESO nor ESA are anything to do with the EU. They are independent treaty organisations. Nothing structural or automatic ensues from the Eurozone situation. But it does make you wonder what they think of us..


Space scariness

April 8, 2011

Anyhoo. Enough of this moral philosophy. I think next time I see Tom S in the pub we will be in a for a several pint session. So. No change there then.

I’m orff ski-ing in the morning so no posts for a bit. Let me leave you depressed. You probably just read Telescoper’s post about NASA bailing out of LISA. That is indeed particularly distressing news for Cardiff. But its bigger and worse than this. I strongly recommend you read the post at Dynamics of Cats. Stein is always worth reading : regularly tickles the funny bone. But not this one. The plug is also pulled on IXO. Now, LISA and IXO are two out of the three L-class missions in ESA’s Cosmic Visions programme… what the hell happens now ?

Comment No. 22 on Stein’s post is interesting … it states that rather than NASA unilaterally pulling out, they did so because ESA pushed … they knew NASA was going to have trouble coughing up so they said they would continue studies alone. Anybody got more gen on this ?

It might get worse. Stein points out that JWST has been taken out of the Astrophysics budget and put in as its very own line item. Maybe this gives it super-high status. But as the US government shuts down because they can’t agree a budget (my Smithsonian chums are on furlough), JWST looks scarily exposed. Don’t think its too far down the road to stop. The US government has proved itself capable of cutting losses.

Remember the Alamo SSC.


End of an era

August 8, 2010

Polish your CV. You could be the next CEO of STFC. If there is anything left to run.

Just before my holidays, I mentioned an STFC web page asking for input to the CSR discussion. This has three interesting updates. The first is a report from Science Board and PPAN. Nothing surprising or scary in this. The second  is news from Council. This is normally so dull it makes you want to chew your own foot off, but on this occasion contains news that will surprise some : the STFC CEO has made it known that he will not take up a second term, and so will leave in March 2012. Council have already set up a subgroup to establish the requirements for his successor.

I think we are way past the personal recriminations stage, so no schadenfreude please. I am tempted to open a book, but probably thats not suitable for public discussion either.

So lets look to the future ! The third update is a link to a presentation given by Director of Science Programmes, John Womersley, to the recent Astronomy Forum.  The bottom line is that BIS will have an answer by October-ish, but the trickle down to STFC won’t be clear until Nov-Dec-ish; and how STFC implements the new budget will be horribly difficult. The feedback our Head of Institute (JAP) gave us was that input is really genuinely desired by Womersley et al. There are going to be some horrible decisions, even if we successfully make the argument that STFC science is investment, and we have less than the Government average 25% cuts.  I am sure individual input will be welcome, but very likely group responses will be more effective, so start lobbying your Head of Department or research group leader.

Even if we were to reduce exploitation grants to zero, we would have a problem. We may be looking at big decisions, like pull out of ESA and do bilaterals, or pull out of CERN. Of course one worry is that negative signals will stop young people committing to the UK; this could be a distinctly non-linear effect, and one that lasts much longer than this spending review.  An interesting positive suggestion that apparently emerged from the Forum was that Fellowships should somehow be strengthened into “New Blood” lectureships. But this requires commitment from our Universities, who ain’t exactly feeling rich either …