Shovel ’em through

January 28, 2010

Saturday I went to Andy T’s Burns Night party. Lots of haggis, singing, and this year he had a piper. Fine evening. Brendan (who turned out to have a splendid singing voice) asked me why the blog entries were slowing down. The answer I gave was that I am swamped with first year teaching at the moment.

Its a big class – a hundred and eighty or so. Sometimes it feels like battery teaching. Crowd all those bodies into one room; force feed ’em a sequence of words, pictures, and numbers; shovel ’em back out; collect degree, start life. University checks balance sheet. Academic revises learning outcomes checklist. Groan.

Other times its a shining joy. Two hundred young things drinking in your words, as you reveal the secrets of the Universe. Beat that for a job. What I really like is the feeling of putting power in their hands. This is not quite astronomy-for-poets. Its mostly for hard science types – chemists, engineers, geologists, as well as physicists – so you can use an equation or two. You show a picture of a distant spiral galaxy. How could you possibly imagine you could know anything about this distant patch of light you can’t touch ? Then you wheel out Newton’s laws, a bit of Doppler effect, and … zap …. mass of galaxy and discovery of dark matter. Look what we did.

This is a lesson for life, and the importance of science. You can master the world. This is why the Government should pay for us.

Gettng ready for the next lecture, I picked up the local student newspaper. There I found an article about that nice Mr Mandelson, and how we wants us to save money by doing degree courses in two years. Academics all over the land are recoiling in horror. Standards forced down even more ! The education-factory wins and the temple of inspiration loses.

Woah there, Captain Jumpy. Is there an opportunity here ? Now that we are teaching 40% of the population rather than the 5% of those long lost elder days, of course standards have to go down. What did you think ? And why is this bad ? Don’t a large fraction of the populace deserve some advanced education ? Isn’t that good for the country ? But how do we do this without losing the truly advanced education needed for working engineers and research scientists ?

In Scotland history has left us an interesting range of degree qualifications – as well as honours degrees, there are ordinary degrees and general degrees. For years they have been seen as compensatory qualifications for the failed. But why should they not be positive intentions, and proud successes when won ? So I have often been tempted by the idea of a designed pyramid. Take in a huge number of students at year-1, and take in gradually fewer each successive year. It shouldn’t be a failure to not go on to the next year; it should be an achievement if you win it competitively; and you are not obliged to try. Year-1, Diploma; Year-2, General degree; Year-3, ordinary degree in named subject; Year-4, honours degree; Year-5, Masters degree; Year-8, PhD.

Every year you exit with a piece of paper. Every one a winner.

Sky Lovers

January 11, 2010

Galaxy images by Russell Croman. NGC 2903 on the left, NGC 891 on the right. Click for bigger versions.

Hello there 2010. Sorry for the absence of posts : I went into a sort of Christmas wasteland, followed seamlessly by a teaching panic. Strangely, even when there was nothing to read, the blog was being checked out 2-300 times a day. Aint you people got stuff to do ? (The Dec 16 peak was 2794. By the way have no idea what these numbers really mean.)

So later today I will be delighting a hundred and fifty fresh young things with Lecture One in Discovering Astronomy 1G. Before it all gets a bit serious, I shall be going for shameless entertainment, running Andy’s Whirlwind Tour of the Entire Universe. Its a few years since I have done this gig, so I have been roaming the Internut updating my picture collection. The three core websites for pretty pix are I guess Hubblesite , and the public Chandra and ESO sites. However, the most striking and interesting thing I came across is the existence of some amazingly impressive amateur astrophotography sites.

A few weeks back I wrote a post plugging Damian Peach and his amazingly sharp pictures using “lucky” imaging. This only works for very bright objects like planets. But amateurs are taking amazing deep sky pictures too. Some of them have 20inch telescopes as well as good CCD cameras; there are well designed filters, and excellent software. Some of them are lucky enough to live in Arizona, which helps. Finally of course their key weapons are patience and dedication; making excellent images is what they are all about. Of course some of them are professional photographers at the same time as being amateur astronomers.

Above are two galaxy pictures from Russell Croman, and below is a short list of some of my favourite web sites. Do respect the copyrights (I make sure they are properly credited in my lectures.) I note that they nearly all seem to be Americans or Brits. Surely our Euro cousins must be doing this stuff too ?

Jerry Lodriguss
Russell Croman, in Texas
Jonathan Fay at Bear Creek Observatory
Damian Peach, Buckinghamshire
Phillip Perkins, Wiltshire
David Nash, Cambridgeshire
Bob and Janice Fera, California
Jason Ware
George Creaney, Las Vegas
Nick Szymanek, well known tube driver
Akiro Fujii via David Malin

Enjoy !

Wise Vibrations in Purgatory

June 17, 2009

My sabbatical is nearly over. Midnight approaches and the shadow of teaching looms… Fair Nature’s eye, rise rise again and make perpetual day; or let this hour be but a year, a month, a week, a natural day, that Faustus may repent and save his soul ! The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike, the Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned !

Err.. oh. Sorry. Got carried away. Luckily, before I am dragged down into the dark, I get to spend a few weeks in Aspen. I suppose this is a kind of inverse of Purgatory. Its achingly beautiful here in Colorado, but expensively chic in Aspen itself. Last night I walked past a building with smoked windows and no sign of anything to buy. The sign said “Franck Muller : Master of Complications”. I thought maybe this was some kind of spooky secret society, but Google later revealed unto me that in fact Franck Muller is a Swiss geezer wot makes fancy watches.

So here at the Center for Zen Physics I am attending a workshop on Wide Fast Deep Surveys of the Future. Like most Aspen workshops its rather loosely organised, but there have been one or two actual talks. One of these was by Roc Cutri, updating us on the status of WISE, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer. This is a MIDEX mission due for launch November this year, which will make a mid-IR survey of the sky. It recently passed its vibration tests. I have often heard about these, but never seen what happens…

Roc showed us a picture of the WISE spacecraft surrounded by a ring of 20 foot tall loudspeakers. He said that big trucks turned up and a gang of roadies set up this giant PA system, loaded up their favourite Led Zeppelin CD, and then ran for cover. Really. Nearly as good as Disaster Area.