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 !

ukirt-2103


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.


Ronnie, Grace, and Aoife

October 13, 2012

All right, all right, enough already. Seems my public is clamouring. Well, I say “public” but of course Mike is an old chum and Ian is a comrade in arms, my sturdy lieutenant in the New Model Grants Panel. But I have also been recently embarassed by a colleague who only just discovered I blog, but found themselves uncertain of whether this was historical research. (This  encounter was on my recent visit to the lovely new Imperialist Centre for Infernal Cosmology, aka the New Jerusalem of Bayesianism).

I suppose I should be writing about UKIRT for sale, as it is a somewhat new development in modern astronomy, or rather the sociopolitics thereof. But  I am lost for words. I will come back to this I promise. But meanwhile here is some Saturday morning musical indulgence.

This morning on the radio I listened to Paul Gambaccini narrating the story of the Weavers famous 1955 Carnegie Hall concert, which launched the folk revolution. It was their first appearance after years of hiding from Senator McCarthy as it were. (Of course, they were Communists). Fascinating stuff. But somewhat to my surprise, I was struck by how much Ronnie Gilbert sounded like Grace Slick. A belting intensity, emotional but controlled use of vibrato, and utter conviction.

Exhibit A : The Weavers playing Darling Cory.

Exhibit B :  Jefferson Airplane from 1969 in Woodstock playing Volunteers

Note Grace Slick with finger in ear. Obviously a true folkie. Note also the revolutionary intent. Finally, note the “call and response” structure. This is classic gospel, but The Gambaccini explained this morning that the Weavers were the first white folk to build this style into their songs. I really do see a straight line from the Weavers to Jefferson Airplane.

Now just for fun, here is a much more modern version of Darling Cory, played by the rather wonderful Crooked Still. Progressive Bluegrass ? How can you go wrong ?  Aoife O’Donovan is a very different style of singer to either Ronnie Gilbert of Grace Slick, but really very very good.

Finally, and especially for Mike, here is Grace Slick at her best : White Rabbit. Its so beautiful its frightening.

Now I must go and do some Physics 1A marking.


Farewell UKIRT

May 31, 2012

A short but sad post. After yet another review, STFC has finally bitten the bullet and decided to close both JCMT (at the end of 2014) and UKIRT (in September 2013). Not a big surprise, but very very sad. La Palma is extended to 2015 with hope of extended negotiations with partners. The STFC announcement is here. I understand there will be an RAS reaction today.

The timing twists the knife. Today we start the fourth Science from UKIDSS workshop, and UKIRT just announced record-breaking productivity.The last UKIDSS observing was about a week or so back. For the final year, UKIRT will carry out a large area J-band survey, the first section of the hoped-for UKIRT Hemisphere survey. The final UKIDSS data release won’t be too long now, but I am expecting it will produce science for years to come – 338 UKIDSS related publications so far, and the rate is still speeding up.

Of course, WFCAM is just the last in a long line of stunning UKIRT instruments. Catch me in the pub and you will get my UKT9, CGS4, and IRCAM stories.

My grateful thanks to dozens of UKIRT and JCMT over the last thirty years, but especially to the gang who are still there now making my science possible – Gary, Tom, Watson, Jack, Thor et al.

I have this feeling that our workshop dinner tonight may be even more sozzled than we expected.


Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal

August 24, 2011

I just finished my first ever sea level UKIDSS observing run on UKIRT. I emerged with a weird mixture of feelings…

Science. I gave an afternoon talk to JAC staff – not just astronomers, but secretaries, engineers, etc – which meant I had to really explain what we have been doing with a thousand nights on their telescope. They soaked it up, goggle eyed – distant quasars, tiny failed stars, vast clusters of galaxies. It made me realise we really are doing something good. I showed them the UKIRT publication history, which Gary Davis made. I think you can see that doing an ambitious survey has been good for UKIRT.

Refereed publications resulting in part or whole from UKIRT observations, 1992-2010.

Money. UKIRT is now very cheap to run. Most of the time there are no observers at all – just a Telescope Operator and an eavesdropping web page. No observer plane tickets. No Hale Pohaku bills. Much smaller support infrastructure in Hilo. If something goes phut, tough. It can wait until next time somebody can get up the mountain. Of course STFC love this, because UKIRT is still putting out press releases but for much less money ! But before they decide other telescopes can do this .. Its possible because a massive survey with a single instrument is a very simple problem; because they have dedicated, skilled, and experienced TOs; and because over many years UKIRT has slowly ironed out its technical issues. It just works slightly better every year.

People. Well it was cool talking to JAC staff, and seeing those familiar TOs. The TOs love the new sea-level ops. Brain works. Less travel overhead. They can buy their own snacks. They have more responsibility, and have risen to that challenge. But the bare bones UKIRT has a downside. People got fired. I had dinner with old chum Frossie. She wrote the Query Tool, but now she spends her evenings listening to the frogs.

Mysticism, Mountains, and Metal. Mostly, I loved the new observing style, for the same reason as the TOs – the brain worked, I could come and go, have dinner wherever I liked. But of course I missed the mountain, especially the mystical experience of descending from the roof of the world at dawn. Also I love walking round the dome, placing my hand on the huge cold metal machine, and understanding that this is all real. Not a computer game. Photons have travelled for 13 billion years from that direction there and got swallowed up inside here. Of course this is very groovy for me, but does this mystical pleasure produce better science for the taxpayer’s money ? I doubt it.

History. I found myself flooded with memories of 25 years of going on UKIRT runs . Somehow, things that have changed make you even more sensitive to things that haven’t. This must be why I found myself taking a photo of my favourite sign at the Hilo Bay Hotel, aka Uncle Billy’s. It says “In case of tidal wave : (1) Stay calm (2) Pay hotel bill (3) Run like hell”.


Redshift Seven

June 29, 2011

I am very happy today to report a triumph for UKIDSS, for Dan Mortlock and Steve Warren, and for UKIRT  : the first quasar to break the redshift seven barrier. You can read the Mortlock et al Nature paper, the STFC story, the Gemini version, or the ESO version. And Telescoper has already splashed it too ! The science is best in the Gemini version, but the ESO has wonderfully gaudy animations….

When we were designing UKIDSS back in 1998-2001, SDSS was doing its thing and the redshift record climbed from 5ish to 6.3. The secret was finding i-band dropouts, as the famous forest cuts out nearly all light shortward of Lyman alpha. However this can’t work past z=6.4 as you get no visible light at all. Bring on the massive IR survey please… This was Steve Warren’s big push, along with the importance of the new Y-band, so we could tell the difference between high-z quasars and T-dwarfs. Finding these swines though is the classic needle in a haystack problem, with millions of fake candidates to weed out. Dan Mortlock has worked long hard and patiently, along with Steve Warren, Bram Venemans, Richard McMahon and others. Team UKIDSS were starting to get worried, as we were succesfully finding more 6ish quasars, but nothing past the magic 6.4… then suddenly bang – redshift 7.085.

Apart from breaking records, the new quasar is important in two ways. First, the Ly-alpha line is eaten away even redward of the peak, implying a small “near-zone” size, and so the best evidence so far for a significant neutral fraction near the quasar. Second, it has an estimated mass of two billion solar masses at just 770 million years after the Big Bang. It is generally thought that the very first stars, and so the first seed black holes, won’t be there until about z=25; then any such seed should not be able to grow by accretion to two billion solar masses until at least 900 million years…

Quasar near-zone

Artists impression of ionised bubble formed around quasar ULASJ1120+0641

Anyhoo. Although ESO and Gemini are getting lots of excellent PR, I think this is a triumph for UKIRT . Not dead yet, squire. In fact, how do we get more of these beasties, and push on to redshift 8 ? Survey the rest of the Northern Hemisphere, thats how. Another four years will do. (OK, VISTA helps too…).

Other thoughts. The Infra-red is cool. Big public surveys work. And for such massive surveys, properly processed and archived data is crucial. The whole thing would have been impossible without the selfless work of the teams at CASU and WFAU. Thank you guys.

Get your own data at the WSA ! DR9 coming your way soon.


UKIRT output : best ever

March 17, 2011

Just had a fun day in Milton Keynes. No, really. I have been here today giving a seminar but also had some very interesting chats, and got a tour of the Planetary Sciences Research Institute, where they have lots of fun kit. I must admit I was a bit perturbed when Simon Green showed me a historical piece of equipment in a glass case and said that it had Colin Pillinger’s lip marks all over it. He then explained that he meant that Colin had blown the glass tubes himself.

Anyhoo, got back to my hotel to find a most marvelous email from Gary Davis, Director of JAC. It seems that UKIRT, that ancient useless telescope that clearly we should have closed by now, produced more papers last year than ever before. Check it out here.

Hem. Just a tad to do with UKIDSS of course…


Stay of Execution Part II

June 7, 2010

These days we have to be grateful for partial victories. You will all remember the pre-Xmas pain of finally hearing the results of the STFC prioritisation review. This included the half-expected but grim news that there would be a “managed withdrawal” from UKIRT. Over the following weeks this got worse, as we discovered that this meant shutting down UKIRT by the end of this year, 2010.  The announcement hit my own scientific ambitions, as it would mean UKIDSS would not get finished as originally intended. It was also grim timing, so soon after the workshop celebrating 30 years of UKIRT. And, as I wrote during my last UKIRT run, UKIRT has gradually evolved into the most efficient telescope I know.

However, the UKIRT leadership evolved a cunning plan. UKIRT is run by the Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC), sharing much support with the JCMT, which is guaranteed to stay open to mid-2012. If UKIRT closes, the operating cost of JCMT would actually go up somewhat. So a new “bare bones” model was developed in which the cost of running both telescopes would be pretty much the same as running JCMT by itself. I have been aware of this behind the scenes for a while, but I am very pleased to see that it has been officially approved by STFC and by the UKIRT Board, and was announced yesterday on the UKIRT website.

The general idea is that the TSS runs UKIRT from sea level, there are no visiting observers, and there is heavily reduced tech support. UKIRT Head Andy Adamson has already moved to Gemini, but luckily the equally trusty Tom Kerr is taking over. You can read more about minimalist mode at Tom’s blog, A Pacific View, which regularly has the most stunning pictures.

The good news is that UKIDSS will finish, and UKIRT stays open, and presumably continues to welcome possible partners. The bad news is that this means real cuts, and there will be real redundancies, over and above the voluntary ship jumping and person shuffling – something lke thirteen posts I believe.


Emmets at Sunset

February 17, 2010

I have been using UKIRT for about a quarter of a century. Two things have changed. The first is that it works much better. UKIRT was always ground breaking and world leading, but now it is a kind of flawless machine as well. The second change is that the mountain is now heaving with tourists. Enterprising companies charge grockles two hundred bucks a shot for which they get a boneshaking ride, a nice warm coat, and the chance to shoot photos from the roof of the world. So we have to lock the door or folks wander in and bugger the dark runs.

My last night on this run saw a particularly large infestation. It was President’s Day so I guess there were lots of locals as well vacationers from Pittsburgh. (Can you imagine a holiday called “Prime Minister’s Day”?).  They were crawling all over the summit as twilight fell, and I remembered what they call tourists in Cornwall : Emmets. Cornish for ants.

Jack, Jack, and I were outside taking our own pix, and a few emmets were brave enough to speak to us. They turned out to be Welsh and were tickled to find out Jack was too. TSS Jack Ehle (not Welsh) invited them in and gave them a quick tour before they had to scuttle back to their emmet bus. They went away beaming. Well hell the government PAYS us to come here, so we should give something back to the peepul.

Lots more data. Happy days.


The sounds of youth

February 13, 2010

I do miss the Mellotron. It was the sound of my youth. I resumed my acquaintance on a flight from the UK to Hawaii for my latest observing run by listening to ancient King Crimson. With those synthesised strings a band could sound radical and modern and gushingly sentimental at the same time.

I was expecting more gushing sentiment in Hawaii. I am here to push on with UKIDSS, our infra-red sky survey, which will take a thousand nights at fourteen thousand feet. Except that now it might not finish … as UKIRT‘s closing date has been set by STFC as Dec 31st this year. So this might be my last ever UKIRT run…

So I was expecting the local staff to be wallowing in gloom, bitterness, and weepy nostalgia. What I found was a kind of resigned pragmatism. Senior staff are putting on their salesman hats and looking for buyers; junior staff are just getting on with their jobs.  And of course they are all brushing off their CVs. But there was no ranting or choking back tears.

I did get my nostalgia fix tonight though. Tom Geballe, who is currently on a staff astronomer run at Gemini, dropped in to UKIRT with his son and other visitors. Tom used to work at UKIRT many moons ago, and was touched to find CGS4 still bolted on to its Cassegrain station. He patted it gently. His son too found his head thrown back in time. The sound of his youth, he said, was the CGS4 closed cycle coolers.

But now the future is upon us ! VISTA works. See lovely new Orion picture. Last night I looked at the Orion nebula with my binoculars. Its nice to be reminded every now and again that what we do is real. It ain’t just a TV game.