Restart Miscellany

March 26, 2014

Some chums complained I have written no blog posts for about eight million years. I blame teaching. Anyway. Lets see. How do you do this thing? Scrapes off rust. Here are a few bits.

(1) At last the STFC Programmatic Review emerges!!! Get it here. I have tried to wade through it, but it looks like all the interesting bits are [redacted]. I encountered one or two cynics who claimed most of it was about the process rather than the results. Unfair. I would say its no more than 40%. About another 40% is generic RCUK Boilerplate.

(2) Research Fish. Don’t even start me.

(3) George Fraser died. This was a real shock and a terrible loss to X-ray astronomy. But he has the most astonishing swan song. Here is his incredibly careful and potentially crucial paper which claims a detection of the signal of solar axions interacting with the Earth’s magnetic field.

(4) The other reason I have been a tad busy is that I have been writing and filming a MOOC with me old mate Catherine H. It’s almost ready for show time : April 28th. You can tell your Auntie to sign up here.

(5) Seeing yourself on film, especially as the free bus pass approaches, is a tad disconcerting. I seem to be perfecting the scrawny old lizard look, whereas I am expecting myself to look vaguely like Charles Manson.  Sorry, off on a 1970s nostalgia kick, as a result of watching this documentary about Mike Oldfield and the making of Tubular Bells. This made it pretty clear (if it wasn’t already) that he was inspired by Terry Riley. Rainbow in Curved Air still amazes me. Here is a yewtoob version with groovy astropix. I think the gaudy artist’s quasar at 5mins in is from an ESO press release I was involved in. Enjoy.

UKIRT extension

July 29, 2013

UKIRT fans will be pleased to see the announcement here

As UK astronomers will know, UKIRT was slated for closure in September this year, but STFC invited proposals for new operators. The good news is that they have two serious bidders. The bad news is they won’t complete negotiations by September. The good news is that STFC has taken the sane decision to extend UKIRT operation through to December while this process continues. The even better news is that University of Hawaii has swallowed the legal responsibility. (For a suitable one off capital transfer methinks…)

UH also swallow responsibility for JCMT. But that has another year to work things out…

Anyhoo. Tally Ho 🙂

Update : it seems the news is even better than we thought !


Update next morning : damn. STFC got tough againukirt-not-2103

NAM and the Knife Edge

July 5, 2013

pointer NAMcupwin Had a jolly few days at NAM2013, the annual UK astronomy jamboree. I gave two talks, a contributed talk and a plenary. This was hard work. Stress City. But I got through it and even enjoyed myself with a giant broom-pointer gag. Later the same day, the Edinburgh team won the NAM footie, beating St Andrews 6-1 in the final, so smiles all round this side of the Firth of Forth. Thanks to Duncan Forgan for the piccie.

Wednesday afternoon was the STFC community session. John Womersley gave an upbeat talks on the state of STFC but the community was left rather nervous. Here are a few key points :

  • Because of the upcoming election, the spending review is for 2015-16 only. The long term funding is all still to play for.
  • The science budget has its allocation (flat cash plus a teensy bit of extra capital) but the Research Council carve-up is still to come. My giant mop may be needed to clean up the blood.
  • The STFC budget result will come in September, same time as the STFC programmatic review outcome is announced. I guess this means that we still won’t know whats in and whats out…
  • Three years ago flat cash seemed like a victory. This time it could look more like disaster. The longer it continues, the more inflation erodes. As erosion continues, at first you just lose some soil – but there comes a day when the cliff collapses. Womersley uses a different metaphor. He said he is telling government that we are on a knife edge. There are rumours that ISIS may have to be mothballed. Wouldn’t make my high-pressure chums very happy…
  • JCMT is now up for sale. (See also SEN article). Meanwhile STFC are negotiating with two serious potential new owners for UKIRT. It seems unlikely this will conclude before the axe is due to fall in September, so there may be a temporary stay of execution.
  • We need to make the case to Government for our economic relevance. Well ok, we have all heard this again and again, but Wommers had a potentially important new idea. We need quantifiable metrics – somewhat along the lines that a road building project might use, quoting the number of commuter-hours saved and attaching a pound-note figure. This won’t be easy, but it really is necessary. You see, I think most politicians are already convinced that science is important, but this warm feeling doesn’t tell them whether they need to spend N pounds or 2N pounds or 0.5N pounds.

Well that will do. For those with a Research Fortnight subscription, there is an excellent article just out by James Wilsdon from Sussex with some interesting insight.

Meanwhile, just to show that it is technically possible to balance permanently on a knife edge, here is Emerson Lake and Palmer forty years on. A treat for prog rock fans. Janacek fans still divided.

CSR Science Optimism?

June 24, 2013

The UK government spending review makes its announcement on Wednesday. The mainstream media have been full of reports of ministers squabbling, especially Osborne and Cable.  Interestingly, while insisting that they love each other, Osborne has said that

I, as a personal priority, want to see science supported – that’s part of this budget, and because Britain leads the world in science, and that’s all about Britain’s economic future.

Coo. Hope he means that. Meanwhile STFC is grinding towards the conclusion of its own Programmatic Review. Science Board met last week and apparently agreed a plan, contingent on budgets of course. Council will endorse in a few weeks and announcements will be made in September. Tension mounts. Do we get LSST? Do we get MOONS or WEAVE or both? I’d love both, and they really go for quite different science goals, but it might be a case of “you can’t have two MOSes”). Add your own frets.

Meanwhile ESA Cosmic Visions grinds along too. Today and tomorrow I am at a LOFT science meeting – I am not specially involved in LOFT, but am here to plug LSST. Every transient LOFT might see (in the southern sky) with the Wide Field Monitor will get a free LSST light curve. My X-ray chums are of course nervous about LOFT versus Athena. They are competing for different slots, and are suitable for very different kinds of science, but how likely is it that ESA will fly two X-ray missions?

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.

STFC : White Smoke

October 18, 2011

It seems the Cardinals have completed their lock in and we finally have a new CEO for STFC : John Womersley, aka Wommers. I shan’t mention the dark rumours I had been hearing before this announcement. Telescoping Peter has already emitted a post, but I got to this late as I have been exploring deepest Drenthe all day. More of this anon.

Meanwhile. Well. Dead pleased. JW is an occasional contributor to this blog, so he’s obviously a fine chap. And he has excellent taste in boots, if a something of predilection for dark shirts.

As the STFC announcement explains, Keef is orff early to levitate the space sector, or something like that.

Enough from me.

Keith 1 Profs 1

March 16, 2011

Just read a tweet from Rob Ivison :

some people won’t like it, certainly won’t acknowledge it, but it was a very good performance from Keith Mason in select committee hearing

Watch the show for yourself, but I find myself in agreement. More or less. The Profs were fine too, but Keith put the ball in the net. (Unlike Chelsea. Oh crikey, what am I doing, pretending I know about football ?) I noticed Ian Corbett sitting at the back. He used to be the spider at the centre of the web. I wonder what he was thinking ?

Here are a few bullet points. From the assembled profs :

  • Things are better, but starting from a low base
  • We need a stable environment
  • If any money becomes spare, put it in grants
  • The real problem is we spend only 1.7% of GDP on R&D. What happened to that target of 2.5% ? Oh, yeah, that was the last government
  • This overinvestment thing : yes there was a pulse but that was the joining fee. Nobody said we had to close stuff. And anyway we have closed stuff.
  • Instrumentation re-balance to labs : bad idea… it works now, don’t change it
  • Those Northern Telescopes : fairly cheap, although we reserve the right to disagree with each other’s numbers

Next, edited highlights from His Keefness and The Smith :

  • Should STFC fund all of outreach ? Don’t be silly
  • Northern Telescopes : yes we agree that would be good and can confirm we are trying to do this; but times are tight; lets be realistic
  • Ahem. Permit to read from 2001 Council Minutes. Says to pay for ESO we will need to withdraw from AAT, JCMT, UKIRT, and ING by the end of the decade. Hope thats a bit clearer.
  • Do all the tech work in the labs ? I would definitely disagree with that. Its not what we said. Permit me to read from the Delivery Plan.
  • Astronomy is important to the Nation. Do we have too many astronomers ? Absolutely not. That spending feeds back in to the economy. We are nowhere near the point of diminishing returns.
  • Grants ? Err, mumble, mutter. (Almost let a goal in there.)
  • Scientist balance on Council ? Same as BBSRC actually.
  • Would I do anything different if I started again ? I sleep easy at night, knowing we did the best we possibly could. (Oops. Candide-ian own goal at the very last minute).

So. It was a draw, but Keef scored both goals.

However. This Council minute thing. As it happens, I have a copy of the Council papers from Dec 2001. (I was on Council at the time). I can’t find this statement in the actual minutes, but it is referred to obliquely. However, amongst the papers was a copy of the “Strategic Plan for Astronomy” given to Science Committee on Nov 27/8 2001. It does indeed propose saving £5M/year by withdrawing from those telescopes, on the assumption of a flat budget.  But But But we have pulled out of Gemini, saving more than that… and after 2001, the Labour government increased science spending by a lot. So all that history is pretty irrelevant. Where are we now and what can we afford ?

Whats that spluttering noise ? Peter ?

Cute kids report

March 9, 2011

So how was today’s show at the Select Committee hearing ? The main thing to say is that in fact the genuine young persons were pretty damned cute, in sense B as opposed to sense A – i.e. mentally keen, shrewd. After a bit, it worried me that this was in fact a weakness of the hearing, if they wanted to find out what would make young people more attracted to physical science. These young people were already physics fans. Anyhoo. Here are some bullet point impressions :

  • Kids apparently value active research participation, rather than (just) TV science  programmes. But as I said, these were already fans..
  • I loved the lad who said he was hooked one day in a kind of  epiphany : seeing the glare from a car he suddenly realised those photons had just travelled 8 minutes from the Sun, bounced off the car, and entered his eyeball. Man thats not just physics – thats Zen.
  • Some of them didn’t know UKSA had been created… but one did because “they rejected a lot of people from my school for work experience”
  • Maggie Aderin-Pocock had her kid there … that was so cool.
  • Maggie stressed that some people can communicate and some can’t… she quoted a school who said “we had a physicist come and talk last year and after that fewer people wanted to do physics”
  • Jim Al Khalili said that we want real science not girls in bikinis blowing up caravans
  • Jocelyn and Roger both said that  STFC is now communicating a lot better, and they are trying hard, but – there still aren’t enough scientists on Council; STFC has structural issues; and there are “some crazinesses they still haven’t thought through”.
  • Roger was polite but firm on the issue of whether there was a deliberate overinvestment in astronomy in the past
  • Roger was very concerned about the suggestion that construction might be concentrated into the labs, rather than university groups. Students have to be trained or the instrumentation field will become moribund, he said.
  • Asked if  we have to cut costs to pay for ESO, Roger and Jocelyn said yes, but we already have : we pulled out of AAT; we reduced membership of WHT and cut operating cost of UKIRT; and of course we pulled out of Gemini. Roger said nobody said we’d have to completely close all  Northern Hemisphere  observatories.
  • Finally, when asked how much extra resource was needed to keep those Northern observatories open, Roger said  2-3M. Jocelyn said “a banker’s bonus”.

Well thats what I got. You can still see the video at the CSC website.

Bring on the cute kids

March 8, 2011

Enough of this astronomical puzzle fest. Its time to get back to a spot of astro-political fretting. Tomorrow (today by the time most of you read this) is the first sitting of the latest STFC show trial, aka the enquiry into astronomy and particle physics by the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Some of you may have perused the transcript of the Jan 19th session, when the committee grilled various Research Council CEOs. I am sure you loved the bit where Keef says that there was an agreement that astro funding was temporarily artificially high after joining ESO, and was planned to come down again. Also the bit where  Keith says that STFC facilities like Diamond and ISIS would be running at full capacity. Maybe you liked even more Keef’s follow-on letter explaining that by full capacity, he meant absolutely fully the level of reduced capacity that Council had agreed. For all you Fawlty Towers fans, I thought this was the “oh, Harold Ro-BINS” moment of the show. I should just add that I am v.glad I am not doing that job.

Tomorrow is not yet the whingeing profs day. Its the how-do-we-inspire-the-kids day, with a succession of actual young persons having their say. There are a couple of Profs lined up (Roger Davies and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell) but I am sure they won’t be whingeing.

If you want to get in practice for a bit more heavyweight fretting, try reading the written submissions by all sorts of good folk. For the impatient, here is a quick summary :

Various nuclear physicists : Ahem. We notice you didn’t ask about nuclear physics. But we are going to tell you anyway.

George E : Keith-must-go ! And more scientists on Council !! (George has an amazing personal quote from Michael Sterling : senior academics in receipt of STFC grants have a conflict of interest and should not sit on Council…)

Various astronomers : We still need the North !

A few particle physicists : Hello ? Anybody there ? Is this thing on ?

Roger The Prezz : So. This planned overfunding thing. Not what we recall, I’m afraid. Got any evidence ?

Mike B : Too many astronomers ? Err, nope. Number per GDP unit pretty average for Europe ole bean.

Em R-squared : Well ok, you’ve followed some of my recommendations, but I was pretty clear about this Northern Hemisphere thing..

John P : do the sums right and you will see we have been cut in half. Some of it has gone to ESA, and some of it has been swallowed by RAL. Diamond and ISIS have suffered too, but they would have suffered even more without the merger.

Actually, if you want to read just one letter, read John’s. Here is my favourite quote :

In complaining about loss of funding, scientists risk radiating a sense of entitlement to public money, and this is an impression we must avoid. But what we can legitimately demand is stability: society needs to decide what it wishes to spend on relatively abstract activities like astronomy and particle physics, and then stick to its bargain. Young scientists of great talent will plan accordingly, and some will choose to dedicate their lives and careers to a given subject, and to pursuing it in the UK. But no-one can plan sensibly in the fact of a 50% cut; unless we start to reverse it, the damage will be felt for decades.