Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal

August 24, 2011

I just finished my first ever sea level UKIDSS observing run on UKIRT. I emerged with a weird mixture of feelings…

Science. I gave an afternoon talk to JAC staff – not just astronomers, but secretaries, engineers, etc – which meant I had to really explain what we have been doing with a thousand nights on their telescope. They soaked it up, goggle eyed – distant quasars, tiny failed stars, vast clusters of galaxies. It made me realise we really are doing something good. I showed them the UKIRT publication history, which Gary Davis made. I think you can see that doing an ambitious survey has been good for UKIRT.

Refereed publications resulting in part or whole from UKIRT observations, 1992-2010.

Money. UKIRT is now very cheap to run. Most of the time there are no observers at all – just a Telescope Operator and an eavesdropping web page. No observer plane tickets. No Hale Pohaku bills. Much smaller support infrastructure in Hilo. If something goes phut, tough. It can wait until next time somebody can get up the mountain. Of course STFC love this, because UKIRT is still putting out press releases but for much less money ! But before they decide other telescopes can do this .. Its possible because a massive survey with a single instrument is a very simple problem; because they have dedicated, skilled, and experienced TOs; and because over many years UKIRT has slowly ironed out its technical issues. It just works slightly better every year.

People. Well it was cool talking to JAC staff, and seeing those familiar TOs. The TOs love the new sea-level ops. Brain works. Less travel overhead. They can buy their own snacks. They have more responsibility, and have risen to that challenge. But the bare bones UKIRT has a downside. People got fired. I had dinner with old chum Frossie. She wrote the Query Tool, but now she spends her evenings listening to the frogs.

Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal. Mostly, I loved the new observing style, for the same reason as the TOs – the brain worked, I could come and go, have dinner wherever I liked. But of course I missed the mountain, especially the mystical experience of descending from the roof of the world at dawn. Also I love walking round the dome, placing my hand on the huge cold metal machine, and understanding that this is all real. Not a computer game. Photons have travelled for 13 billion years from that direction there and got swallowed up inside here. Of course this is very groovy for me, but does this mystical pleasure produce better science for the taxpayer’s money ? I doubt it.

History. I found myself flooded with memories of 25 years of going on UKIRT runs . Somehow, things that have changed make you even more sensitive to things that haven’t. This must be why I found myself taking a photo of my favourite sign at the Hilo Bay Hotel, aka Uncle Billy’s. It says “In case of tidal wave : (1) Stay calm (2) Pay hotel bill (3) Run like hell”.

Quantum Mysticism : not as good as Pooh

March 28, 2007

I am trying to get to grips with David Bohm and failing utterly, as much through boredom as stupidity..

The low-l anomaly in the cosmic microwave background, discussed by Andrew Jaffe in his seminar here last week, gets people excited because it hints at a violation of causality. Long distance quantum entanglement excites people for much the same reason. You spit out a pair of particles that must have opposite spins, but the spin of either one is not determined until it is measured. So then you measure one, and instantaneously force the other, distant, particle to have a specific spin. The laws of physics, some say, are in a deep sense non-local. Everything is connected. Err…

If you google “everything is connected” you mostly get lots of wishy washy mysticism, with the odd bit of quantum mechanics thrown in. Well, as you will see from some of my posts, while I am vaguely antagonistic to Western religions, I find Eastern mysticism very interesting, while trying to stay healthily sceptical. This sort of interest is of course quite normal for someone of my age whose hair used to be much longer and who still has some pink loon pants somewhere in the attic, and who occasionally plays his crackly Steve Hillage albums on his Rega Planar. (Now we’re all reality gypsies).

So there I was in the bookshop and found myself picking up “Wholeness and the Implicate Order” by David Bohm. The blurb says he is not only famous for his hidden variables interpretation of quantum mechanics, but was inspired by Eastern Philosophy, and blended the two to arrive at a new way of looking at the Universe, including consciousness. Wow. Can’t wait.

A week later I have managed a few dozen turgid pages per night. The bits of physics in it do look really interesting, but I’d have to read the real papers to be sure, and my brain hurts already. But the philosophy seems to be vapid gibberish. Its full of pointless neologisms, repetition, obscure phrasing, and a kind of Vedic philosophy muddled and watered down to a sort of murky soup.

I’d hate to think anybody would think this is what Eastern philosophy is really like. Better to go straight to the Tao Te Ching. Or possibly even better, the Tao of Pooh.

Or maybe just read The House at Pooh Corner. Alternated with chapters from the Feynman Lectures.