New Year Mutterings

December 31, 2011

Another year is racing past the finishing post. Queenie’s Birthday Honours List  is out.  Not bad for science overall, with  Knighthoods for selllotape and pencil heroes Geim and Novoselov.Weaker than usual for astronomy and particle physics. I could only find an MBE for Derek Raine – well deserved, but awarded for services to education, not science. (Embarassing note : in the original version of this post I had some others but thats because somehow I had downloaded last year’s list as well.. Doh.)

Of course I have the usual confused mixture of approval and discomfort. Its good that public service is recognised; the MBE seems particularly important, as it rewards those all the way up and down the social tree, rather than just giving an extra bauble to those already at the top of the tree. But on the other hand it seems a throwback to a fusty and repressive past. Knighthoods, Orders, Empires ? The nobility only exists because a thousand years ago some people were better at bullying, greed, and violence than others. But hey ho thats the way of the world. At least now we have community workers, and they can be valued and rewarded. With a medal. Not a banker-style bonus of course.

I guess these thoughts are sharper than usual as the world is in a strange state. Europe and America about to plunge into recession again. Ordinary people in the Arab world and in Russia openly challenging their rulers. Tea Party nutters showing no sign of backing off.

I find myself more confused about politics than ever before. Communism failed and real people didn’t want it. But now Capitalism is failing too. Is there a genuine Third Way ? Maybe what we want is actual genuine Free Enterprise Capitalism, as opposed to the fake Capitalism of the last thirty years. Can we in fact allow people to trade freely, without the need for “trade agreements” stacked in favour of rich countries, invasions to control resources, and the IMF dictating to elected governments ? Well ok, a chap is allowed to dream at Hogmanay.

Maybe I should be careful what I wish for. State investment in science and technology makes rational sense in an imperialist economy. Its not clear what would happen in a genuine free market system.

Oh. On a cheerier note, I just passed the fifth birthday of the blog !


Happy farming John

October 10, 2010

I heard from CfA colleagues that John Huchra died on Friday, a horrible shock. Sean has already written about him over at Cosmic Variance, and his Wikipedia page has already been updated. The world moves fast these days. Here is John’s home page, where you can read about his work in his own words.

I last saw John just over a year ago, playing volleyball with my kids in Aspen along with other wide field survey notables. Still had his glasses on I think. Many years before that (1982ish), I was grateful to John for teaching me much of my optical observing skills. I was in process of converting from X-ray astronomer to optical astronomer, and together with John and Martin Elvis we were getting CCD images of Seyfert galaxies using the 24 inch at Mt Hopkins – a rather hands on telescope shall we say. A few things I remember from that first “proper astronomy” experience :

  • The TV acquisition camera had a weird dead patch somewhere near the middle. I asked John what this was. “Jupiter” he said.
  • Adjusting something in the dome, I asked John to pass the torch but he was too consumed with mirth to do so. Seems I should have said “flashlight”, as to Americans “torch” conjures up images of villagers chasing Frankenstein’s monster.
  • Apparently SAO should have consulted the local Indians. Mount Hopkins was always known to them as “Old Cloudy Top”
  • In the afternoon, if there was ANY sign of cloud, John would say “looks like we bought the farm Andy”. The fourth time he said this I asked him to explain. It comes from The War. Soldier buddies would sit around together, missing their folks, and say things like “When I get home, I’m going to buy me a little farm”. When someone was shot, and dying in his buddy’s arms, he would look up and whisper “Hey, Joe, looks like I finally bought that farm”

So, John, look after that farm. Its pumpkin season.

Astronomy and the War Machine

January 29, 2009

My pal Will Saunders, with whom I spent many happy hours collecting IRAS galaxy redshifts, is one of the guys who wrote “No War” on the Sydney Opera House in huge red letters, and was sent to jail for it. I am proud to know someone with such clear and strong convictions. He is also a vegan. None of this half-baked vegetarian stuff. Makes me feel indecisive. I used to refer to myself as a “part time vegetarian”, and explain to people that although I think the Iraq war is stupid, morally wrong, and frightening, I am not a pacifist. Well, everybody is or should be concerned with such issues as citizens; but they also intersect with our scientific lives. Astronomy is entangled with the war machine more than we like to think.

These issues have been at the back of my mind since Friday. I have been peddling my wares – a seminar combining UKIDSS and AstroGrid – around the State of California. So far I have strutted my stuff at Caltech, SLAC, Berkeley, and Livermore, with Santa Barbara and UCLA booked for the next few weeks. Friday was my gig at the Lawrence Livermore Lab . This was a different experience. It being primarily a weapons lab, and me being a suspicious foreigner (all foreigners are suspicious), I couldn’t take my own laptop on site. I had to email the talk, where it was put on Wim De Vries’ laptop. But I couldn’t even touch Wim’s Mac. I had to do all that “next slide please” malarkey. I just thought it was a bit of a hoot, but some of the scientists who work there grumbled about having to go through these hoops when we weren’t within a thousand yards of anything secret. The pure science side of Livermore has been squeezed in recent years, but in the pub afterwards there was much talk about Steven Chu’s all-hands speech, referring to science at DOE labs as the “jewel in the crown”. Everybody of course has picked up on the new Administration committing to “double federal funding for basic research over ten years”. You can can see that phrase for yourself on this White House web page. Some lab scientists seemed to think that this would revive basic science at big labs, while what they saw as giant make-work projects (like NIF and LIFE) would get sliced back. Hmmm. Time will tell.

But why are there astronomers at all at LLNL ? My starting point is that the Government ain’t stupid. They genuinely believe that funding basic research is not just good for the economy, but also good for defense; and that mingling the researchers is also somehow healthy. They don’t need convincing that basic research is worth money; its only a question of how much. PP and Astro have been squeezed in recent years, but we get hugely more than our predecessors before the Second World War. Our fortunes were transformed by the Bomb, and by Radar. The Government discovered that scientists were smart and useful and could get things done; and the scientists discovered how Government worked, and which strings to tug on in the corridors of power.

Big scientific advances need new technology, and the new technology is horribly often a spin-off from the technology of killing. Where would astronomy be without rockets, and what would have happened without the V2 ? Where would X-ray astronomy be without pointable spacecraft, and who do you think invented three-axis stabilisation ? It was invented at Lincoln Labs and then applied down the road at MIT for SAS-3, not the other way round. Where did those Infrared arrays come from ? I don’t think Rockwell make their living off astronomy.  Ditto Adaptive Optics. We are playing catch-up. OK so we can claim that a Particle Physics lab invented the World Wide Web and gave it to the world; but who paid for the development of the Internet to make that possible ? DARPA of course.

I met Peter Eggleton at LLNL. He bought me a beer to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University. Nice chap. For him, a good reason for working at LLNL is access to one of the most stupendously powerful computers on the planet, the TeraCluster 2000. Of course its not just the Big Iron. The code concerned, the bizarrely named Djehuty, contains major chunks of stuff that have been … how shall we put it … repurposed.

My Dad Dated a Martian

January 13, 2008

Funny how things suddenly join up sometimes : in this case, Egypt, Mars, War, and Disease.

I was reading one of my Christmas presents – The Book of General Ignorance . On page 103 there is a discussion of what colour Mars really is, finishing, out of the blue, with the statement that “Cairo, al-Qahirah, is Arabic for Mars”. Coo. Really ? However, a quick Internut search on “meaning of Cairo” revealed several baby-name-choosing web sites, eg. this one which all agreed that Cairo means “Victorious”. Indeed, the Cairo tourism website says Cairo is “The Triumphant City”. Furthermore the very reliable Nine Planets site told me that the Arabic for Mars is Al-Merrikh. And this web site agrees.

So those clever GI folk got it all wrong ?? But this guy thinks Cairo means Mars too… Unfortunately he’s a crank. Oh dear. GI folk got suckered ?

My Dad in Cairo, 1939 Just then Child No.3, Dylan, comes in and asks if we know anybody who has memories of the Second World War, so he can do his homework. “See that photo of a man in a fez ?” I ask. “Thats your grandad. He fought in the war in North Africa. He’s dead now but I remember his stories. I’ll tell you some.” So I do : some of them are funny, some of them are horrific – noise, bombs, death, bodies. I wonder just how far to go. War is exciting and depressing; glamorous and disgusting. Dylan has enough stuff and goes. I am left kinda vibrating but to him its just some homework.

War. Oh hang on, I have been making silly assumptions. Are we talking Mars=planet or Mars=god of War ? Did the Egyptians, like the Greeks, associate the red planet with War ? Finally, after a bit more hunting, I track down the answer. This page told me that Al-Qahirah is the ancient Arabic name for Mars .. and finally a magazine called The African Executive explained it all. Here is a quote:

The name Al-Qahirah literally means “The Subduer,” though it’s often translated as “The Victorious.” The origin of the name is said to come from the appearance of the planet Mars during the foundation of the city. The planet Mars, associated with destruction was called “Al Najm Al Qahir” in Arabic, from which the name of the city was derived. However the legacy of the name evolved into the title “Qahirat Al Adaa” meaning “subduer of the enemies”. This title was given to the city as many armies were destroyed in attempts to invade Cairo or defeated elsewhere by troops sent from Cairo.

So Cairo is Mars after all. As I absorb this, I remember another story I didn’t tell Dylan. My Dad met a nice Egyptian girl and took her on a date. He thought some Museums would be good, and found one puzzlingly called “The Museum of Hygiene”. As they climbed up a spiral staircase, Jack was embarassed to find them going past increasingly graphic naked statues, culminating in a statue of a man with his penis falling off.

It was the Seven Stages of Syphilis. My Dad really knew how to show a girl a good time.