Particle Astrophysics and the Sponge House of Doom

January 31, 2011
The Sponge House of Doom

Culross Palace, aka the Sponge House of Doom

As the bard said, the best laid plans o’ mice and men gang aft awry. Of course, if you are the Princes Serendip, ye gang doon that path, and find a Grand Adventure.

Number one child is home, on a strange St Andrews style post exam holiday. Californian boyfriend is here too. He expressed a desire to locate Blair Castle, as it might have some connection with his family. A click or two later, Google Maps had us sorted. It was suprisingly close – just over the Forth Road Bridge and turn left. We stepped on the gas and headed towards his heritage.. Well, omitting some tiresome details, an hour or so later we had discovered there are in fact two Blair Castles. Blair-Castle-A , home of Clan Murray, is a 13th century monster brooding over the edge of the Highlands. It is crawling with suits of armour and tourists and so forth. Blair-Castle-B , where we had pitched up, is a Regency Villa, sandwiched between tracts of decayed industrial wasteland, and since 1927 has been a convalescent home for Scottish miners. You can read about its history here, but you can’t go in.

However, we found ourselves on the edge of Culross, which turned out to be the most stunning town : a 16th century time capsule, staring across the Forth at the Grangemouth refinery. It is crammed full of perfect ancient ghosts. The best is Culross Palace, which manages to look simultaneously beautiful and kinda like a giant orange sponge cake. It was shut, so instead the kids fantasised about being swallowed up by the sponge house of doom and never emerging. Next we went to the pub, and then as darkness fell, we roamed around the crumbling Abbey and spooked ourselves. A marvelous day and all by happy accident.

I found myself ruminating on a conversation with M who had complained that particle astrophysics is taking over our subject and killing it, especially in the US. To get big money these days you have to be doing a giant physics experiment with your telescope. You can’t just aim to understand stars, or galaxies, or quasars. You have to be claiming to measure w, or testing strong field gravity. All very nice, but these things are very expensive. As we head towards the funding wall, all we can afford is one or two giant physics experiments.

Astronomy has had a big impact on our understanding of the laws of physics, but, M claimed, this has never been as a result of naive experimental intention. It has always emerged as a happy accident from studying the contents and behaviour of the cosmos – universal gravity from the orbit of the moon, quantum tunneling from the burning of the stars, dark matter from the rotation of galaxies, dark energy from trying to measure q0 and so on.  What we need to do is to encourage diversity, try to understand our surroundings, and keep an open mind.

Of course, that may be a hard sell to funding panels.

The book next door

January 4, 2009

Today I went out for a haircut and came back with a book. I got the haircut ok, but walking back I stumbled across Bells Books, one of those lovely musty second hand bookstores. I emerged with A Sourcebook in Astronomy 1900-1950, in which Harlow Shapley collected original articles by all the right people – Ed Hubble, Annie Cannon, Tommy Gold, Albert Einstein, Abbe Lemaitre and many others, as well as many others you won’t have heard of. I guess I was in the mood for the history of astronomy. My teacher and good colleague Mary Bruck died in December, and I just finished her excellent book on Mary Agnes Clerke.

Carrying my lucky find, I remembered a discussion I had in the Kings Buildings branch of Blackwells last year. The shop had big piles of Course Textbooks but very little else. The guy on the till explained how Amazon was killing real bookshops – why walk to the store, not knowing if they will have the book you want, when you know you can order it from your living room ? We’re not talking about the latest Dan Brown. We are talking about unnusual books, just the right book. The giant warehouse wins when you are hunting in the long tail. But we miss those magical hours  wandering the bookshelves, browsing. Wandering the shelves is more than just entertaining; it maximises serendipity. As the man in Blackwells said to me, three times out of four, the book we buy is the one next door to the one we came in to look for.

Scientific progress can be like this too. You are hunting for one thing and find another. There are several famous examples in modern astronomy. One is the building of the Jodrell Bank telescope to look for meteor showers, only to find persistent radio sources, which would turn to be the most powerful objects in the Universe. Another is Giacconi’s rocket shot of 1962, funded to look for solar X-rays reflected from the moon; instead it found Sco X-1 and the X-ray background. I have heard some X-ray astronomy old timers say that Giacconi always wanted to find something new and unexpected; the lunar fluorescence thing was just a funding excuse. It took another twenty eight years before X-ray astronomers really did detect the Moon. X-ray image of the Moon (ROSAT, June 1990)

Here is the picture, taken by ROSAT in June 1990. This is such a cool picture. Not only can you see the sunlit side of the Moon, but the other half is dark, because it blocks the cosmic background.  You can just see that the sky shines in X-rays coming from behind the Moon.

Sometimes the Snark is a Boojum after all. Decades of struggling to measure the expected deceleration of the universe, which would tell us its mean density, and finally the supernovae show us something entirely new – dark energy – and the universe becomes a more mysterious place.

I wonder what unexpected corner we will turn down next ?