Light-speed doubt

February 27, 2012

Lets see if we can link the faster-than-light neutrinos with Richard Dawkins.

This morning I listened to Start The Week (yes, I overslept …)  featuring a bunch of soft-core religious types, positioning themselves as the cuddly middle between Fundamentalism and Militant Atheism. Reminded me a bit of politics in the 90s. After many years of Socialist Worker Party nutters and in-your-face Thatcherite nasties slugging it out, Toady Blair smooths in, all calm and nice, bundles up the masses in the middle, and sweeps to power. Well anyway, lets not carry the analogy too far or I will start writing a whole different blog post. Lets just say that mostly I am happy with the idea that bitter polarisation does not help the rational cause. The more religion becomes a kind of fluffy lifestyle choice the better. Might even try one on for a bit sometime. Something with a bit of mystical chanting sounds fun.

What threw me though was that the cuddly ones were holding up doubt as a strength of good religion. One described himself as an Agnostic Christian. Hang on there Jim, isn’t Doubt our banner ? If there is one thing that defines the scientific approach to life, its scepticism.

Of course the paradox of scientific scepticism is that it has been so successful for four hundred years, that humankind has built up an amazingly reliable body of knowledge and understanding. In practice, if a student interrupts to say “Aha ! but Newton’s Law could be wrong, and then  everything else in this Lecture is wrong !”, we sigh patiently and say “just stick with me for a while here …”. Truly maximal doubt can be grossly inefficient.

So instead we have a kind of hierarchy of doubt.  Or maybe layers of an onion catches the situation better. Although it is rarely quantified, we have a clear sense  of which things to doubt, in which order. This is why the Opera neutrinos story  is so interesting. You don’t casually suggest that the speed of light limit can be broken. But the Opera folk did such a very very careful job of checking everything, and were so up front about their result and analysis, that people had to take it seriously. The betting was still very heavily on some mistake being found, but enough layers of the onion had been peeled that there was a non-zero chance of reaching the core.

Now the Opera team have announced  that they have found two technical problems, including a dodgy connection. So it looks like Einstein is safe for now. Jon Butterworth has written a nice Guardian science blog post  making the case that they were nonetheless right to publish. Where would we be if we avoided publishing things that seemed to contradict our pet theories ?

I think the striking thing about the FTL neutrinos is not just that the Opera team were prepared to think bold thoughts, but that the whole community was prepared to question Einstein if necessary. I think this is what separates doubt in science from doubt in religion. For many religious folk, surviving doubt strengthens their faith; others oscillate in an endless nervousness; and a few can have a catastrophic loss of faith and abandon their religion. But its always a personal issue. You never hear of an entire community of co-religionists trying to collectively decide whether their holy book is correct.


Our Day in Court : Part two

February 21, 2008

Yesterday was the second session of the IUS Select Committee investigation into the Science Budget Allocations, with the comittee grilling the Science Minister Ian Pearson, and Research Council Supremo Keith O’Nions. You can listen to the live recording of the proceedings. I reported on the first session here, and you can find the transcript here.

Pearson and O’Nions were completely truthful throughout, but placed shall we say a certain gloss on matters. Likewise, in places they were interestingly helpful, and in others were careful to silently drive round certain holes in the road. Lets have a go at summarising/paraphrasing some of the key statements made by Pearson and O’Nions, and reversing back over the potholes.

Crisis ? What Crisis ? Its all over blown. Everything is fine.

I know this will have annoyed a lot of people, but lets not waste time on it. Politicians can’t agree there is a crisis in public. They never do. Would you ?

No grants cuts. There is an impression abroad of swingeing cuts, but actually they are staying broadly level.

Andrew King nailed this one in his piece in Research Fortnight the other day. First, it is true that in 2006 and 2007 astronomy grant awards went up; so the size of cut depends on what baseline you compare to. Second, grants last several years; O’Nions was quoting RAs in place, which will take about three years to show the full effect. This round, according to Andrew K, 88 RAs are leaving and 82 RAs are arriving. Those 88 however mostly come from the 2005 low year; if the awards stay at 82, then the un-replaced fraction will be going up over the next two years. After three years, the effect on RAs in place will be pretty much the 25% cut that STFC in December asked every University in the country to be ready for.

There is more money for Universities. Including FEC, money for astronomy grants is going up 67% over the CSR, and 43% for Particle Physics.

Absolutely correct. Don’t just shout at Keith Mason and Keith O’Nions. Get inside your University committee system and find out where the money is going. This is related to the next point : O’Nions was asked “so who is that extra money being taken away from” ?

Inappropriate unfunded research. FEC is not a shift from QR. Its real extra money. What was happening in the past was that Universities were doing underfunded research, and taking the money effectively from teaching and from not fixing the roof etc. This is what FEC is for.

Absolutely correct. However, as I said last time, watching the pea under the cup is tricky; its not clear enough extra money has been allocated to the Research Councils for this purpose, unless they cut grant volume.

This is only part of Physics. Not every area of Physics is damaged, or complaining. Some people are indifferent.

This was in fact a subtle but important understatement by O’Nions. My condensed matter and photonics colleagues (some of whom I know read this blog) are not just shrugging their shoulders and saying “nothing to with us”. They believe that any day now they will have to close down beamlines and so on because of problems originating in Particle Physics and Astronomy – uncontrollable subscriptions, huge project commitments, grants that had been going up. And they were made very nervous by STFC announcing that they would make £120M cuts to solve an £80M problem. Finally, they get annoyed by us guys referring to “core physics” and behaving as if STFC were the same thing as PPARC but gone a bit wrong. Even finally-er, they score points on KT and we don’t. (I know thats wrong in a deep way, but thats the way it looks).

Think on this hard as we come up to Wakeham. Is its remit “to look at the health of particle physics, astronomy, and nuclear physics” ? Nope. Its “to look at the health of physics.” Firm voices will be heard to argue as follows :

The essential problem is that university physics departments rely too much on astronomy and particle physics. For twenty years, universities have been hiring astronomers because it gets bums on seats; the number of academic astronomers has grown considerably. That army of astronomers of course demands more RAs and more telescopes, insisting that RC funding follow the same trend. But this is in the opposite direction to government policy towards more practical and economically focused research. This has to stop. Universities cannot blackmail the government in this way.

Answers on a postcard please.

STFC did not inherit any problems from the merger.
The budget of the merged council was the same as the sum of the two. An NAO report before the merger did due diligence and did not find either PPARC or CCLRC to have any deficits.

This really was economical with the actuality. The merger happened just in time before the deficits hit CCLRC. This is unambiguously stated in the NAO report and the later proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee. By 2003, the Diamond and ISIS-2 teams had correctly estimated the predicted operating costs, but the CCLRC projected budget did not have enough to cover these costs. This is what the NAO report says about CCLRC :

The anticipated total increase in its operating costs is in the region of £25 million per annum at 2006-07 prices or around 12 per cent of the Council’s current annual operating expenditure. If the Council does not secure additional resources, this degree of cost growth could exacerbate existing constraints….

That last bit means “they would have to shut down ISIS and Diamond half the year”. Now you see why our condensed matter chums are worried.

The STFC budget was increased. On the basis of flat-cash plus FEC, STFC had the second largest increase, after MRC. The net increase was 3.2%. NERC was 2%; EPSRC and AHRC were -1%.

This is very useful and fascinating in various ways. First, EPSRC and AHRC are probably worst off because they are completely dominated by grants, whereas NERC and STFC have a significant fraction of facilities costs. Second, it does indeed look like FEC has been slightly underfunded. Third, STFC, did indeed get a perfectly decent settlement. So what went wrong ? The answer is bleedin’ obvious, and is contained in the section above. Everything would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that STFC inherited from CCLRC an unfunded overcommitment of £25M/yr.

I can fine tune this a little. A colleague of mine recently got someone pretty knowledgeable in The Machine to say privately that “the CCLRC overcommitment is about 70% of the problem”. OK, so STFC got net 3% over three years, i.e. 1% per year, so an extra 6M/yr-ish. Thats about a quarter of of 25M/yr.

So in round terms, three quarters of our problem is inherited Harwell campus overcommitment, and one quarter is other stuff – loss of subscription protection etc. Keep repeating this mantra.

Daresbury has a healthy future.
We are absolutely committed to building up Daresbury as a Science and Innovation Campus. Every day new companies are signing up.

OK, we believe you. But as various committee members stressed, this policy may fail if there is negligible core science there. The SRS has gone and they didn’t get Diamond. ILC work has gone out the window. The future of the 4GLS concept is uncertain. They have a vague promise of 50M for a supercomputer centre (the Hartree centre) but does that make sense now ?

Pearson and O’Nions got lots of hard questions along these lines, and persistent pressure on whether there should be a policy of regional development. Mutter Mutter Haldane. By contrast, the discussion of ATC took ninety seconds. Blah Blah understand useful discussions going on about closer links with University etc etc. Wasn’t sure what to think about this. Keep my head down or climb up and wave the Scottish Banner ? Somewhere in between maybe.

Lessons learned in communication. The fuss made by certain parts of the physics community has been unfortunate, and obviously orchestrated. We must think about how to handle this better next time. There has been a lot of criticism of the STFC advisory process. It did not look anomalous from where we were sitting, but obviously this is something we can look at.

By Civil Service standards, this was actually quite strong stuff. “My underlings screwed this up. But I want you to understand it wasn’t my fault.”

That’ll do for now. Watch out for news from Council Feb 28th, and the Science Board Town Meeting on March 3rd. That is when the blood-fest starts.


The Murder of PPARC ?

January 8, 2008

Hard to believe, but the following exchange is quite genuine. It is an extract from the Sixth Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology, HC203, the Scrutiny Report for session 2005-6, published April 2007, and including evidence taken on Jan 17th 2007 (section “Ev49”)

Dramatis Personae

Chris Mole : an MP who was a member of the Committee.

Malcolm Wicks : Science Minister at the time (now its Ian Pearson).

Keith O’Nions : DG of Science and Innovation. Mr Big.

Plot so far

The infamous merger of CCLRC and PPARC to make STFC has already been stitched up agreed, and Wicks and O’Nions are being grilled on whether its all happening as planned …

Now Read on :

Q294 Chris Mole: Minister, last year the Government published the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004–14 subtitled Next Steps and then held a consultation on it. What has been done since the publication of the responses to the consultation document in September last year to move forward the Next Steps agenda?

Malcolm Wicks: I think some of the discussion we have had already is relevant to this… (blah blah … then continues ..) The statutory instruments have now gone through the two Houses so we are well on the way to establishing that formally in April; is that right, Sir Keith?

Professor Sir Keith O’Nions: Formally in April but it will probably be July before warm bodies are—I will stop.

Malcolm Wicks: Stop there. I think that is a very large part of it. We have also, of course, put forward the plan to merge two of our leading research councils, those concerned with large facilities, which I need to know more about. Again, I wonder if Sir Keith could just bring us up to date on where we are, but in terms of statutory instruments we have got formal approval.

Professor Sir Keith O’Nions: It went through to the Technology Strategy Board and the STFC—a merger of PPARC and CCLRC went through the two Houses at the same time. We are completely on track with STFC.

Malcolm Wicks: Did you say “merger”? I though you said “murder”.

Professor Sir Keith O’Nions: No, it was definitely a “g”.

Malcolm Wicks:
Oh, it was a merger, yes, which is the way to look at it, of course.

Professor Sir Keith O’Nions: That is on track for starting in April at the beginning of the new financial year. There is a chief executive designate, Keith Mason. We have interviewed for a chair and later this week I will be putting advice to the Minister and Secretary of State on a chair for STFC and, of course, that is a prime ministerial appointment ultimately. That is where we are.

Wicks (sotto voce): Diss Mole guy is a problem. Keith, I want you to make shure he got company on der way home, capiche ?

O’Nions (perfectly boldly): Hey, I ever let you down ?

Well, ok, I made up that last bit, but the rest is verbatim. Talk about letting the cat out of the bag.


Yes we have no onions

November 27, 2007

Earlier today I donned the white bow tie and funny gown to do my bit at a University Graduation Ceremony. I rather like doing this. Its a grand piece of physical theatre. Hundreds of people clapping once every seven seconds for an hour, standing in a vast Victorian Hall with rays of light piercing the gloom. Every student getting tapped gently on the head with a bunnet made of John Knox’s breeches. The Principal making the same jokes twice a day for a week, and pretty much the same jokes as last year. The thirty second formal meeting of Senate just before we process in. Honestly, its like a cheery amalgam of Lindsay Anderson and Jerzy Grotowski.

Today we gave an Honorary Degree to Sir Keith O’Nions, Director General of the Research Councils. We were very good children. Nobody, absolutely nobody, called him Sir Keef Unyuns (its pronounced Oh-nigh-ons) , and nobody gave him a hard time for not giving STFC enough money. Well, not while I was there.

I am failing in my brown-nosing duties. Last night I had dinner at the Principal’s house with Lord Sainsbury (ex Science Minister) and other Heads of School. I only managed to say about eight words total to Sainsbury+O’Nions. I just couldn’t think of anything sensible to say about Knowledge Transfer, which is what you have to do these days …

If you check out this web page and read carefully you will see that Sir Keef apparently worked at the MOD for one thousand six hundred and four years. Wow.