SKA leak

March 11, 2012

Following the earlier teaser, rumours about the SKA site recommendation are leaking out through the press. South Africa has gone into a clear lead. Note careful use of word “recommendation”. An expert committee has made an evaluation on scientific and technical grounds, but the real decision is with the SKA Board, with voting members from China, UK, the Netherlands, and Italy. Firstly, there are quite properly financial, management, and political issues to consider. Secondly, the technical evaluation was apparently quite close. So the fat lady ain’t sung yet, but I guess if you are on your way to the bookies, you will find the Australian odds somewhat lengthened.

The leak appeared first in the Sydney Morning Herald. There is a video interview at that link with somebody called Dan Flitton, who seems to be the channel rather than the source of the leak. Official sources are of course doing the no-comment thing, but nobody seems to have denied Flitton’s statement, and the story has been repeated – in South Africa, in Business Day  and the Mail and Guardian ; on the BBC news site; and in Nature News. The Nature article implies that they have their own source. Its all interestingly different from earlier rumours of a possible merger.

Its now spreading round the usual news re-cyclers and aggregators, with nothing new as far as I can tell. Slashdot has a classic internet style discussion. All sorts of random gibberish, misundertandings, and vileness, with the odd genuine insight sprinkled in, including some suggestions of the technical pros and cons. Take a look if you feel up to holding your nose as you wade past the trolls.

Anyhoo. Board meets April 4th. Albert, JW, you may decline to comment of course.

À suivre, as our French chums say.

Radio Renaissance : where’s the dog ?

October 24, 2011

Radio astronomy is undergoing a renaissance. How did this happen ?

This question is on my mind as I have just returned from sitting on an evaluation comitttee for ASTRON, the Dutch institute for radio astronomy, home of WSRT and LOFAR. Of course it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say anything about that review, but it won’t hurt to say how exciting it was to actually visit LOFAR in the flesh. When I say flesh I mean mud and wire of course. Its a fascinating mixture of the crude and high-tech. The latter is course all the electronics and fibres and giant computers and software. The crude bit  is the antennae. From pictures I had thought the high-band antennae were strange gleaming tiles, but actually they turned out to be tarpaulin covering polystyrene boxes containing bits of metal that looked like they had been cut out with a Stanley knife. I love it.

Anyhoo. With LOFAR, EVLA, and e-MERLIN happening right now, ASKAP and MeerKAT on the way, and SKA driving its way through the funding agencies, stuff is happening in radio astronomy. A few years back I used to like visiting Jodrell Bank because it was so delightfully 1950s. It was like stepping into an episode of Quatermass and the Pit. Now the chaps at Jodders have upped sticks and moved into a gleaming new building in the centre of Manchester. The radio astronomers themselves used to seem like gentleman amateurs. Now they are all ambitious and thrusting. The SKA project is a tightly controlled PR machine. (I could tell stories but I won’t). Crumbs – how did that all happen ?

Well, they got their act together – scientifically, technically, and politically. But what surprises me is this. Usually what drives scientific changes is the availability of new technology. We all like these days to boast about knowledge transfer, and radio astronomy is nicely embedded in telecommunications technology of course – but exciting things happen when the technology is transferred from industry or the military to science, rather than the other way round. Examples that spring to mind : IR astronomy jumped into the new age when IR arrays fell off the back of the military lorry; optical astronomy was transformed after the CCD was invented; X-ray astronomy got serious when astronomers learned how the guys at Lincoln Labs could make three-axis stabilised spacecraft that could point. What was the new technology we jumped on to make the radio astronomy revolution ?

Put another way… normally we are the flea on the dog. Where’s the dog ?