Standing on a spinning rock

December 27, 2012

Another sixties icon passes beyond the veil : Gerry Anderson has gone to join Joe 90 and Torchy the Battery Boy in the sky. Guardian obituary here. First ever episode of Supercar here, and if you want to check out the purple page-boy haircuts and metallic mini-skirts, try Episode 1 of UFO here.

Meanwhile, an update on my Patrick Moore nostalgia post. The mysterious “Gareth” turned out to be my own nineteen year old son, who for Christmas bought me that a 1964 edition of The Observers Book of Astronomy, just as I remembered it!! What a nice boy. His sister bought me a very steam-punk sextant so it was a rather nice antique astronomical christmas.

Concrete experience is very important in science. (Bear with me, there shall be A Link). Theory has to be constantly checked and re-rooted in observed fact. But the concrete is also important at a simple human level. Its good to be reminded we are doing something real; science is not an abstract game. Its wonderful when you show people Saturn through a small telescope. Suddenly its really there – its not on TV, you can see it with your own eyes. Its right there, in that direction.

The Observers Book has a chapter about equipment, and stresses the importance of a good mounting, and preferably some kind of manual or clockwork drive. As Patrick says, when people first look through a reasonably high powered telescope, they never fail to be struck by how fast the stars are moving. Indeed. Then suddenly you realise – you actually physically feel – that you are standing on a huge rock which is spinning in space.

Count one, two. That spot you occupied one second ago – its now three hundred metres over there.

Well…. maybe now we need to think about the Earth’s orbit; the local solar motion; the orbit of the Local Standard of Rest around the Galactic Centre; the motion of the Galaxy with respect to the CMB; Mach’s Principle maybe … or maybe not. That will do. We stand on a spinning rock. And you can see it with your own eyes.

Guest Post : Two Modest Proposals*

December 6, 2009

My UKIDSS co-conspirator Steve Warren has provided me with a nice wee guest post. In fact, as a special extra, its really two posts in one. Both parts are provocative proposals. So …. how about another poll ?

Steve on :

My first modest proposal is to introduce ‘ranked-normalised’ citations. Straight citations are good for people who typically work in large collaborations. Normalised citations take care of this to some extent, but don’t give credit to the first few authors who probably did most of the hard work. Ranked-normalised citations would work as follows. In a four author paper, the weights by author rank would be 4,3,2,1. These are then normalised by the sum of the weights, so the first author gets 0.4 of the citations, the second author 0.3 etc. In many cases this would be a fairer way of giving credit than either straight or normalised citations. Of course in some cases it won’t work, particularly when author lists are alphabetical – I’m afraid the Aarseths of this world will always do better than the Zytkows. I think ranked-normalised citations would be useful, and might even influence authorship lists.

My second modest proposal is to give away a small amount of telescope time by lottery. For example at the end of the meeeting the ESO OPC (or HST, Chandra, etc) would throw the names of all the successful PIs into a hat, and draw out one, who is then given 8 hours of grade A VLT time to do whatever they want. They wouldn’t have to justify the science in any way, and would be free to collaborate with anyone who they might think has a better idea. They wouldn’t have to justify how they used the time after the event. There would be no rules (well you can’t sell the time). I bet that those 8 hours would produce more science than average.

* A modest proposal is the title of a satirical essay by Jonathan Swift, in which he suggests that poor people in Ireland alleviate their suffering by selling their children to be eaten by the rich. Another of his works was The benefit of farting.

: Steve off

So : vote now ! Results will accumulate publicly this time.

Euroscope vote : last chance

August 27, 2009

Finished that input to the Large Facilities Review ? OK. Next. Insert your penny’s worth into the European Telescope Strategy Review. This is part of the whole Astronet Roadmap for European Astronomy thing. This particular exercise is about the future of our 2-4m class telescopes.  In the era of 8m telescopes, with ELT on the horizon, and money getting tighter, what should we do with these older telescopes ? Keep ’em going ? Bin them ? Re-purpose them ? Or a bit of all three ? (As PI of UKIDSS, you can probably guess my answer… keep UKIRT going !!)

This is one that every academic and postdoc can make a difference to I think. The panel really want to know what the community thinks, and the input requested is free-form comment rather than another one of those “do you think a, b, or c ?” type questionnaires.

But time is nearly up ! Deadline 31st August. Thats Monday ….

ps UKIDSS just passed the 100 papers mark…