Something Fresh

December 6, 2011

Almost escaped from teaching. Maybe Ye Olde Blogge can Arise Again. But what, but what, is burning to be said ? Here is a shortlist.

(1) The title is for Professor Smail. First ever Blandings novel. But people have sent me emails saying “we cannot live by Wodehouse alone” so better stop there.

(2) The NOAO consultation has proceeded apace. The latest issue of their newsletter summarises the results  which seem to be that (a) we are relatively cheap really; (b) 4m telescopes will still do some groovy stuff; (c) we need 4m telescopes to train more astronomers. All true, but I can’t see this sort of stuff gripping the likes of Michelle Turner-Overdrive or whatever her name is.

(3) Meanwhile an AURA review into how to run Gemini  recommends it just gets swallered up by NOAO. Luckily the Yookay isn’t involved any more, so there is no need for us to splutter. Leave that to the Canadians.

(4) A new age of optimism dawns ! Wommers jetting around the world making positive noises, kissing people’s hands, and shaking babies. (Shum mishtake ? Ed). THES had an interview  and STFC had its own Hello John  news item. Better than a Dear John letter I suppose. But I drift. No sooner was JW in place than SKA leapt into the future .

(5) Presumably SKA will happen sometime after the lost decade. This economy stuff is a tad depressing what? Watched the Fred Goodwin show on the Beeb last night. Then I noticed that I am in possession of a cheque from ABN Amro, the toxic bank which RBS cleverly bought just before the dam burst. Better cash it quick.

Much of the world of finance seems like vapourware. Credit default swaps ? How did anybody think they were doing anything real ? But the effects are real and scary. Merkel and Sarkozy are proposing, as far as I understand, to make Keynesian economics illegal from now on. Wuh ? Now every day our futures lurch from side to side as “the markets” respond wildly. This is nuts. Like some crazy machine with the feedback loops all wrong. I reckon the economy needs a spot of systems engineering. We need to turn on some damping Cap’n ! Can we get someone from the ATC or RAL to take over ?

All I need now is guest posts expanding the above shortlisted items. Then I can go and do me christmas shoppin.


Redshift Seven

June 29, 2011

I am very happy today to report a triumph for UKIDSS, for Dan Mortlock and Steve Warren, and for UKIRT  : the first quasar to break the redshift seven barrier. You can read the Mortlock et al Nature paper, the STFC story, the Gemini version, or the ESO version. And Telescoper has already splashed it too ! The science is best in the Gemini version, but the ESO has wonderfully gaudy animations….

When we were designing UKIDSS back in 1998-2001, SDSS was doing its thing and the redshift record climbed from 5ish to 6.3. The secret was finding i-band dropouts, as the famous forest cuts out nearly all light shortward of Lyman alpha. However this can’t work past z=6.4 as you get no visible light at all. Bring on the massive IR survey please… This was Steve Warren’s big push, along with the importance of the new Y-band, so we could tell the difference between high-z quasars and T-dwarfs. Finding these swines though is the classic needle in a haystack problem, with millions of fake candidates to weed out. Dan Mortlock has worked long hard and patiently, along with Steve Warren, Bram Venemans, Richard McMahon and others. Team UKIDSS were starting to get worried, as we were succesfully finding more 6ish quasars, but nothing past the magic 6.4… then suddenly bang – redshift 7.085.

Apart from breaking records, the new quasar is important in two ways. First, the Ly-alpha line is eaten away even redward of the peak, implying a small “near-zone” size, and so the best evidence so far for a significant neutral fraction near the quasar. Second, it has an estimated mass of two billion solar masses at just 770 million years after the Big Bang. It is generally thought that the very first stars, and so the first seed black holes, won’t be there until about z=25; then any such seed should not be able to grow by accretion to two billion solar masses until at least 900 million years…

Quasar near-zone

Artists impression of ionised bubble formed around quasar ULASJ1120+0641

Anyhoo. Although ESO and Gemini are getting lots of excellent PR, I think this is a triumph for UKIRT . Not dead yet, squire. In fact, how do we get more of these beasties, and push on to redshift 8 ? Survey the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, thats how. Another four years will do. (OK, VISTA helps too…).

Other thoughts. The Infra-red is cool. Big public surveys work. And for such massive surveys, properly processed and archived data is crucial. The whole thing would have been impossible without the selfless work of the teams at CASU and WFAU. Thank you guys.

Get your own data at the WSA ! DR9 coming your way soon.


NSF FUD*

May 25, 2011

* Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

Strictly speaking FUD is a management technique. Whereas with mushroom management you keep people in the dark and pour shit on them, with FUD you give them lots of information, but make sure half of it is misleading, and that staff are maintained in a state of fear. The executioner can always be glimpsed just over your shoulder. However, FUD is also a good description of the state of confusion and division created by the cost-cutting strategic reviews which we we all know and love.

A US colleague tells me that NSF must be either less panicky or dopier than NASA. Whereas the NASA side of the the decadal review fell apart within weeks (“WFIRST ? You made that up right ? Yeah, right, maybe 2025”), its taken NSF nine months to start backtracking. According to this Nature News blog post  Jim Ulvestad told the Town Meeting at the AAS that they are setting up a “portfolio review panel” to decide what to cut. They have capital issues – they promised to build LSST, and to cough up 25% of either TMT or GMT – but their real problem is operations, including LSST downstream of course. There will be no money left for grants. Sound familiar ?

I am sure such a panel will look at salami slicing – NOAO trimming, bare-bones style Gemini etc – but they may have to take a deep breath and think about closing something. Mesdames et Messieurs, faites vos jeux.


Telescope Tensions

April 20, 2009

I may be whingeing about the weather, but I sure ain’t whingeing about UKIRT. Its a world beating facility, and runs more smoothly than other telescope I know. This wasn’t the case when I first started using UKIRT … shows you what you can do with thirty years to nail this stuff down. Well… dedicated and talented staff kinda help too 🙂

In last year’s crisis, UKIRT was under threat. Luckily, the community response was very impressive. As a result, UKIRT is guaranteed at the very least to finish UKIDSS. Now the feeling of crisis looms again. As Peter C has described, STFC’s problems have deepened because of exchange rate problems, and we are all waiting for the budget with our breath held.

Meanwhile, rumours abound of a review of ground-based facilities by STFC. (OK I know thats only one rumour, but Tom Shanks can abound all by himself I reckon.) This should be able to dovetail nicely with the US decadal survey, as discussed in an earlier post. It needs to report well before November, as thats when the crucial Gemini Board meeting is … However, so far there seems to be no sign of terms of reference appearing on the STFC web site. By the way, isn’t it a very pretty and professional looking web site ?

The GB review may be an opportunity to review priorities for future things, but of course everybody is assuming its a game of musical chairs. Oh look ! There’s a news item about Merlin being a great success ! Oh and a lovely new brown dwarf result from UKIDSS, folllowed up by observations on Gemini !!

Oh dear. Is this going to get a tad tense over the coming months ?


Gemini : outbreak of sanity

February 27, 2008

I am sitting at home listening to a recording of the last session of the IUS Select Committee .. when suddenly along comes an email from Roger Davies (to the SCAP list I think) alerting us to what Roger called “an outbreak of sanity”. There is an announcement at the Gemini web site. This has a joint statement from STFC and the Executive Agency (NSF) that UK is a Full Partner in Gemini. Here is the text :

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has reaffirmed the UK’s position as a full member of the Partnership under the terms of the current Gemini Agreement. The Gemini Board welcomes this statement. The Board acknowledges the STFC’s need to address its budgetary constraints and notes that, under the terms of the Agreement, the UK is entitled to seek to sell some of its telescope time both within the partnership and, subject to the approval of the Board, outside the current partnership. The Board has directed the Observatory to continue the UK as a full partner, participating in all subsequent observing semesters, and all relevant committees and functions of the Observatory.

Note it gives us permission to start flogging off time. Any takers ?


Universal Understanding

February 17, 2008

I have been having a clearout this weekend and found a pile of last year’s Christmas Cards on a shelf. (I am talking 2006 here..) Now one weird thing about being Head of School is that I get a whole bunch of scientific-corporate xmas cards. I get a card from two different bits of ESO, one from JAC, one from the Principal, one from companies I bought a lot of computers from, and this year even one from AWE (don’t ask). But some cards from 2006 suddenly seemed evocative of a lost era – the last ever card from CCLRC, and the last ever card from PPARC. The latter says “Five Supernovas, Four Ghostly Neutrinos, Three Solar Orbiters, Two Sub-atomic particles, ONE BIG BANG”. I get the joke, but it doesn’t scan, and it doesn’t quite make sense ..

But saddest all is my card from the Gemini Observatory. It says “Best Wishes for a Season of Universal Understanding”.

Yeah, right.


Gemini : back from the brink

February 12, 2008

Interesting announcement from Gemini Board :

Update on the UK status in Gemini — updated February 11, 2008

Negotiations have been re-opened, and UK time re-instated. US community members have had an email explaining the volte-face. Presumably something official will coem from STFC soon…


Gemini and STFC’s problems : triple squeeze

November 25, 2007

Michael Rowan-Robinson, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, has written a piece for Research Fortnight about the Gemini-withdrawal issue. The RAS has put out the text of Michael’s article as a newsfeed. Its worth a read. I think Michael has the issues spot on (he usually does..)

STFC has a triple squeeze. Because of “Full Economic Costing” they have to give the Universities more money; the subscriptions they have to pay to CERN, ESA, and ESO are tied to GDP which is going up in real terms; and the operations costs of Diamond and ISIS are alarmingly larger than forecast.

UK astronomers understood that moving in with the big boys was going to be scary. When Diamond sneezes, we catch cold. But if something folds, we could be in the gravy. Hmm. Sorry about the gharrssly mixed metaphors.

Key point buried in Michael’s article : watch the spreadsheets at your University and make sure you are getting the FEC flowthrough. The biologists will be getting nervous as Charities, their main grant sources, don’t pay FEC, so their income generation now looks much weaker…

Details for political geeks only :

I was aware of the ops costs issue in general terms, but Michael refers to a report of the Public Accounts Committee which spells this out. You can find the report (HC 521, Nov 13) here. Dull reading but important … Big projects like Diamond, ISIS, MICE, and HECToR have all been very impressive in capital terms, mostly coming in on time and on budget, but they are nearly all coming in 50-80% higher in operations costs terms than originally approved. This particularly hits STFC, and looks like costing them £27M/year, even before paying all that FEC and growing subscription costs.

EPSRC will be hit too, as the new national supercomputer, HECToR has, like Diamond, ISIS-2, and MICE, come in on budget in capital terms, but has turned out to be more expensive to operate than originally expected. This is where I breathe nervously. HECToR is operated by EPCC within my own School. Its in an anonymous building out near where Dolly the Sheep was born. The costs of HECToR are dominated by the huge electricity bills, needed for cooling the darn thing. We are currently trying to work out if we can vent some of the heat into greenhouses and grow tomatoes. I jest not. Anyway, with the oil age about to end, electricity ain’t going to get any cheaper.

However … the contract we have signed makes it clear that EPSRC bears the operating costs, not the University of Edinburgh.

Or if thats not true, Richard Kenway and Arthur Trew are dead men.