Social and anti-social astronomers

June 7, 2011

Its exam time. Don’t we love it. Students and Staff alike. We do ours a little earlier than most, so my marking is all done and we are in the middle of exam boards. Its a multi-stage process these days, with separate special circumstances committees, pre-boards, and stage-1 course boards, before the official final exam board. The latter then largely homologates the recommendations of these earlier committees. Probably more efficient than it used to be, but even more bureaucratic. So we all look forward to the small amount of socialisation that goes with the process – the annual exam board dinner !

So there we were last night, at Blonde. By the way, I recommend you don’t Google “Blonde, Edinburgh” unless you have safe search switched on. Or on the other hand… anyway. It was a fairly usual mix. Gossiping about George and Carlos and the Gruber Prize, bitching about absent members of staff, and as the wine flowed on, bitching about present members of staff. But there was also an interesting conversation about Blogs and Twitter.

Nearly everybody present was a Luddite and thought blogs and tweeting were onanistic and time wasting. A polite exception was made for my blog, and Peter’s, on account of they were (at least sometimes) a useful community conversation forum. Myself and @wikimir and @paula_wilkie were the only Tweeters. To everybody else, Twitter seemed even more clearly bizarrely pointless. People thought the idea of @WETI was funny, but that was seen as a joke on Tweeting. I was challenged to describe a real use of Twitter. About the best I could come up with was that Paul Crowther knew everything first, and that if you followed him on Twitter, you would know everything second. The response to this was “whats the hurry ?”

Then this morning I became aware of an interesting new attempt to make Twitter useful – the Astronomy Journal Club, set up by Emma Rigby, Matt Burleigh, and Emily Baldwin. I learned about it first in Sarah Kendrew’s blog post here. Its all brand new, so who knows if its going to work, but why not give it a go ?

Six degrees of Twitter

May 4, 2010

Its hard to be original. When I first signed up with Twitter, I liked it straight away, somewhat to my surprise, as I have never liked Facebook, and saw Twitter and Facebook as the twin spearheads of trivia. One pleasant Twitter surprise was the spare simplicity. Only does one thing. No ads. Strict 140 character limit. That kind of discipline can be good for artistic expression. An idea jumped into my head. Twitter Haikus ! Ten minutes later I realised that Twitter is swarming with haikus. Those of you on Twitter can just search on #haiku; others can see a constant stream of twitter haikus here and more nice stuff here .

Half an hour later I thought … how about a Twitter Novel … twenty first century Dickens ? However … I guess I don’t need to carry on.  For your enjoyment here is the stream from the currently ongoing Twitter version of Romeo and Juliet.

A week later I had noticed that when I got a new folllower, it was kinda fun clicking at random on their followers or followees, to see where I ended up. Pretty soon I found myself having “small world” thoughts – how many links separate any two Twitterers ? Could be a game, or a research project, thought I.

Scooped again. Through TechCrunch, to which I am mildly addicted, I learned of a report by a company called Sysomos which apparently gives us the answer. They analysed 5.2 billion connections and concluded that Twitter users are on average separated by 4.67 steps.

However, I couldn’t figure out what they really did. They say they analysed Twitter “friendships” but Twitter doesn’t have “friends”. It has followers and followees. They can’t be using followees, as any fule can search for a famous person and follow them. Bingo. One step. But they obviously don’t mean followers either, because the article refers to the phenomenon of coming across one of your followers after a few friendship links. This article suggests that a reasonable definition of “friend” on Twitter is someone you have directed a post to (with “@”) at least twice. But who knows if thats what Sysomos did ?

I have just sweated through two stressful peer review experiences. But getting cross with the Sysomos report reminded me how good the peer reviewed literature is. You couldn’t get away with not defining your methods at MNRAS.

Is this six-degrees-small-world just pop nonsense or is there really something to it ? Yes, a graph with six links can connect extremely large numbers of nodes. But that doesn’t tell us much about how real world networks actually develop. Don’t networks divide into islands ? There is a good wikipedia page on the subject and at least one quite famous serious paper ( Watts and Strogatz 1998) but this web article casts doubt on the whole thing.

I’d tell you the answer If only I had any energy left after solving quasars, marking exams, and reading nine million grant proposals.

Are you worthy of Britain ?

April 18, 2010

Not quite sure about the latest Doctor Who yet. Two episodes in a row have been a tad British for my taste. First it was Spaceship UK with Orwellian overtones and Good Queen Bess. Then it was back to the Blitz and Winston Churchill. The episode of Doctor Who Confidential which followed suggested that the Daleks themselves were also a British Icon. I didn’t find all this stuff as stirring as I think I was supposed to. Found myself doubting my patriotism.

Then, courtesy of Norman Gray, I found out how to measure my patriotism. Her Majesty’s Government has kindly provided the Official Practice Citizenship Test. There are 24 multiple choice questions along the lines of “How many parliamentary constituencies are there ?” and “In what year did women obtain the right to divorce their husband ?” and “Which University does Paul Crowther work for ?” Norman announced on Twitter that he had scraped a pass. So I gave it a go and failed miserably (11/24).

So are most astro-blog-readers worthy of being British Citizens ? Give it a go and record your result anonymously below :

Joint post : UK space liftoff

March 21, 2010

Three v.v.exciting things happened in the last few days. (i) I signed up for Twitter. You can find me here. Pretty quickly lots of old chums and blog readers sent “welcome aboard !” messages, including some that said “does he know what he has let himself in for ?” Gulp. (ii) I got an email from Lord Mandelson. This invited me to the launch of the new space agency on Tuesday coming. As Googleman John Taylor said, “Andy meet Mandy” ? (iii) Paul Crowther, National Treasure, sent me another guest post. He was worried that I haven’t fretted enough about the whole STFC restructuring / space agency thing, so he would just have to do it for me. Okey dokey Paul. Here we go :

Crowther on :

Following Lord Drayson’s structural `fix’ of STFC, I thought it timely to reassess whether STFC is finally on a road to recovery or still languishing in intensive care? This coming Tuesday, March 23rd, looks set to be significant for STFC’s future health in three ways:

a) Lord Drayson’s new UK space agency is launched. Currently STFC contributes a major fraction of the UK civil space spend, via ESA subscriptions (including Aurora) and domestic R&D. Should we welcome or fear the transfer of funds from STFC? Personally, the sooner ESA’s subscription shifts across the better, since this heavily distorts STFC’s spending on astronomy/space science. Space was a major focus of STFC’s submission for the last spending round, so perhaps the removal of this element might allow STFC to renew its emphasis upon science?

b) The S&T select ctte are to publish their Impact of Spending Cuts on Science report, whose terms of reference explicitly included STFC’s difficulties. Some interesting submissions from organizations and individuals have already been made public. Non-STFC users of Diamond and ISIS should be very pleased with the fix, but STFC will still shoulder the burden of fixed staff costs of Rutherford/Daresbury labs, and treasury-imposed non-cash `allocations’ which which continued to distort STFC’s allocation in future spending rounds. Will the retiring committee chair Phil Willis MP be as critical of STFC (and HM government) as he was two years ago in his Science Budget Allocation report?

c) Although some of the external issues affecting STFC look set to be put right, the fear remains that the UK will quickly slip down the league tables in astronomy and space science as a result of too little support, for too few facilities. University vice-chancellors, mindful of STFC’s recent problems, will be reluctant to recruit staff to fundamental physics anytime soon. This brings us to the third of Tuesday’s events, namely a Commons debate on the Future of Physics Research secured by the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, Dr Evan Harris MP. The threat to some departments has not been publicly acknowledged by STFC senior management, but they must recognise the major financial problems now affecting physics around the country.

Beyond this week’s events, much still depends upon internal structural changes within STFC. Concerns remain that scientific peer review, despite appearances (read Prof John Womersley’s view in this week’s RF), is unable to compete on a level playing field with STFC’s stategic priorities. Still, ring-fencing operating costs for Diamond/ISIS might lead to the dissolution of Science Board, potentially bringing advisory panel recommendations one level closer to decision making. The volume of university grants remains volatile in the medium-term, and depends critically upon a successful bid by STFC for the next spending round, which is anticipated to commence within the next 12 months. Lets hope that preparations for the spending round submission are already underway by STFC’s executive and scientific advisory committees.

Crowther off

I do intend to go to this launch, and try to understand better what the relation is between this, the ESA Centre, and the Gateway Centres. Watch this space. I expect I might even Twitter while I am there…

Pointless Babble

August 28, 2009

Only 40% ?? Amazing. Genuinely newsworthy.

Gamma Ray Twitter

June 11, 2008

I have never really seen the point of Twitter. (“I’m eating a sandwich”. “Now I’m putting the plate in the dishwasher”. ) Likewise, on that FaceBook “Current Status” thing, I just can’t resist the feeling that the only logical thing to type in is “On Facebook wasting time”.

But today I have really enjoyed a Twitter site. I have been following the Bad Astronomer’s Twitter site on the launch of GLAST, and somehow it was all quite exciting …

We haven’t been short of gamma rays over the last few years – INTEGRAL and SWIFT have done fantastic stuff – but GLAST is much higher energy and really big. It is going to be exciting.

The BA has written several posts about GLAST recently, eg here, and here.

Here are some good gamma ray links :

The Stanford GLAST site
The ESA Integral site
The Integral Data Centre (Geneva)
The Southampton Integral pages
The SWIFT Operations Centre at Penn State
The UK SWIFT Science Data Center (Leicester)