VISTA is Go

December 11, 2009

VISTA, our shiny new IR survey telescope, is ready for rock and roll. Check out the ESO press release . There some lervely pictures, including a zoomable mosaic of the Galactic Centre.

I am excited (and relieved) both scientifically and in project terms. Data is being processed by a combined Cambridge-Edinburgh team. The data will be deposited in the ESO archive, but also of course will be available in a flexible queryable interface pretty similar to what we already do for UKIDSS at the WFCAM Science Archive (WSA). (The VSA is ready but I am not sure I am allowed to show it to you yet…) Enjoy.

Next up : WISE. This is a spacecraft that will survey the sky in the mid-IR, nicely complementing UKIDSS and VISTA. It is due for launch on Monday from Vandenberg. Gad, the IR is getting exciting.


Tim Hawarden

November 19, 2009

We got some bad news a few days back – Tim Hawarden died, rather suddenly. This is a real loss to UK astronomy, as well as to ROE and to UKIRT. There is an obituary on the ROE web page, very nicely put together by Ian Robson. The family requested flowers from family only, but suggested an appropriate charity instead. If any other readers remember Tim, you could also consider this charity :

Pegasus Children’s Trust of South Africa,
c/o Mrs Judy Westwater, 118A Bruce Gardens,
Dalmeigh, Inverness IV3 5BE

Ian Robson has suggested we add anecdotes to the website. This is what I will shortly be sending in :

Some years back, outside a tourist shop in Kyoto, I took a swig from a can of coke, only to be stung by a bee that had just landed inside the can. I spat out the bee, but it still hurt like hell. Tim whipped out his pocket knife, looked me in the eye, and said firmly “Open your mouth wide and keep very still”. He exuded such a bold confidence I did exactly what he said. Tim  gently dug into the soft flesh in the roof of my mouth, then proudly showed me the sting on the blade of his knife. “Wow” I said, “where did you learn to do that ?” There then followed a big jolly Tim-type laugh. “Well…” he said, “I have never done that before. But it seemed better not to mention this until after I’d finished !”


UKIRT and Star Wars

September 14, 2009

Todays lessons : (i) never understimate the public appeal of astronomy, and (ii) stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.

I am sitting in a fascinating but sentimental workshop : UKIRT at 30, a celebration of thirty years of ground-breaking infrared astronomy at the UK Infrared Telescope. It is pretty amazing how UKIRT got proposed as a very cheap and simple light bucket, but in fact has stayed ahead of the game in technical innovation and scientific impact at every step.

The classic era for some was the revolutionary application of infrared imaging arrays – the famous IRCAM. Ian MacLean’s description of the history had some interesting insights. He showed a blow-up of the first array in the lab at ROE, and there, etched along the bottom in tiny letters was the word “tankbreaker”. This is what you get when you inherit military technology …

Ian heard rumours of a group in a US university that had an IR arrray to play with and went to see them. They wouldn’t say who they got it from, but Ian convinced them to let who-ever-it-was know that ROE was interested in getting a working camera on a real working telescope. They did. This, we now know, was Al Hoffman at SBRC (now Raytheon). Al in fact convinced his management to start a new program of commercial array development specifically for astronomy. Apparently he skipped his boss and went straight to one of the VPs. Why ? Because he knew that guy was a keen amateur astronomer …

SBRC and UKIRT/ROE entered into a formal partnership. It is very unnusual for a US commercial corporation to enter such a partnership with a non-US non-commercial entity. This sounds like just the sort of Knowledge Transfer success that the powers-that-be are urging us to achieve today. But hang on – note which direction the Knowledge is Transferring…. Did we invent some great new technology, which industry gratefully devoured ? Don’t be silly. They were the dog, and we were the flea. Partnership is the word. As customers we helped them develop a new market.

Same story with Adapative Optics. Probably same story developing now with ginormous databases.


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…


Telescope Tensions

April 20, 2009

I may be whingeing about the weather, but I sure ain’t whingeing about UKIRT. Its a world beating facility, and runs more smoothly than other telescope I know. This wasn’t the case when I first started using UKIRT … shows you what you can do with thirty years to nail this stuff down. Well… dedicated and talented staff kinda help too 🙂

In last year’s crisis, UKIRT was under threat. Luckily, the community response was very impressive. As a result, UKIRT is guaranteed at the very least to finish UKIDSS. Now the feeling of crisis looms again. As Peter C has described, STFC’s problems have deepened because of exchange rate problems, and we are all waiting for the budget with our breath held.

Meanwhile, rumours abound of a review of ground-based facilities by STFC. (OK I know thats only one rumour, but Tom Shanks can abound all by himself I reckon.) This should be able to dovetail nicely with the US decadal survey, as discussed in an earlier post. It needs to report well before November, as thats when the crucial Gemini Board meeting is … However, so far there seems to be no sign of terms of reference appearing on the STFC web site. By the way, isn’t it a very pretty and professional looking web site ?

The GB review may be an opportunity to review priorities for future things, but of course everybody is assuming its a game of musical chairs. Oh look ! There’s a news item about Merlin being a great success ! Oh and a lovely new brown dwarf result from UKIDSS, folllowed up by observations on Gemini !!

Oh dear. Is this going to get a tad tense over the coming months ?


I failed the Turing Test

April 18, 2009

I am at fourteen thousand feet and trying to read “The Emperor’s New Mind” by Roger Penrose. (Its cloudy at UKIRT). Perhaps it would have been wiser to try it at sea level at a more normal neural firing rate.

So early on there is all this stuff about the Turing Test. Apparently Turing’s original paper said that computers would pass 30% of Turing tests by the year 2000. Now I love my Macbook but it ain’t that good. So chalk that up with personal jet packs on the list of futurology failures.

You know the idea of course. A computer and a real person are hidden away in different rooms and a second real person asks both of them questions, by plain text only. If the interrogator can’t tell which one is the real person, then the computer has passed the Turing Test.

So it occurred to me that the weakness in this is that it depends on the hidden human. I definitely have some cousins who would fail the Turing Test. Or let a dumb computer slip through too easily. Anyhoo, mustn’t be arrogant. At fourteen thousand feet I think I will fail too.


Its the Economy Stupid

March 10, 2008

Patience dear reader. The Clinton reference is explained at the end.

I haven’t posted for a few days. I have been visiting ESO, participating in an internal review they were having of their Virtual Observatory Systems (VOS) Department. This was a very interesting event : some hard bitten VO sceptics were converted. Of course as well as telling them how good our ESO chums were, I slipped in a quick demo of AstroGrid’s VO Desktop… sorry Paolo, couldn’t resist it. Meanwhile, like many other UK astronomers, I have been manning the barricades and joining about six telecons a minute trying to plot our rescue plans. On the plane home, somewhat exhausted, I was re-reading The Tragical History of Dr Faustus (pretentious ? moi ?)…

Ah UKIRT
Now thou hast but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually !
Stand still, you ever moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease and midnight never come;
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 UKIRT may repent and save its soul !

For UKIRT, read MERLIN, AstroGrid, WFAU, etc. Mephistopheles cometh.

The community consultation is an interesting exercise. After being heavily criticised for not consulting the community, STFC has thrown things wide open for comment. Every postgrad in the land can vent her spleen. Of course “community consultation” is normally a euphemism for “allow the big profs to lobby”, so STFC may claim this is a real community consultation. As a Head of Department I know that the job is more like being King John than Louis Quinze if you know what I mean. How do you avoid being at the mercy of the squabbling barons ? Well of course, you appeal directly to the yeomen and peasants, and they become your power base. Hmm. Thinks. Maybe should change metaphor from mediaeval Europe to ancient Rome. Who are the People’s Tribunes ?

Well, anyhoo… you can’t have failed to notice that STFC is not exactly an anarcho-syndicalist commune, and in fact tends somewhat to the dirigiste. (Not inconsistent with populism of course…) There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is the personal management instinct of senior STFC staff. The second is the nature of STFC and its appointed mission. It is not the embodiment of the scientific community, channelling upwards to government; it is an arm of government, whose aim is to improve the performance of UK PLC. Keith keeps telling us this but we don’t listen. Its the economy stupid.

Some scientists are gung ho for Knowledge Transfer. Others are nervous and distressed, worrying that the purity and independence of academic science is being destroyed. These fears are growing as the commercial pressure builds on the teaching side too. According to the FT, a confidential DIUS report plans a new business focus on teaching. The FT article is here and a related Guardian leader is here.

The worries that commercial engagement will destroy academic science are a bit daft. They do both perfectly well in the USA. Galileo flogged his inventions as fast as he uncovered the secret laws of Nature. And the although the current government is even more insistent on economic relevance than before, notice that unlike governments in the 80s and 90s, they want to pay us extra to help industry. Up here in Schottish-land we don’t want less of this Science and Innovation stuff, we want more please.

Of course thats me talking as Head of Physics rather than Andy the Astronomer. How do we engage with industry when we study the stars ? Answer-1 is that we don’t have to. The Government does recognise the intrinsic value of pure science. But how do you put the correct number on that value ? Same budget as AHRC ?? Answer-2 is that we should re-define KT as “economic impact”. Or put another way, our Knowledge Transfer is people not widgets. This is all going to be vairy important in the Wakeham Review.

Meanwhile keep repeating these two mantras :

(1) STFC inherited a budget deficit of £75M from CLRC.

(2) Its the Economy Stupid