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Friday, February 29, 2008

Strange parallels

This quote jumped out to me today from a story on BBC sport:

Swindon boss Maurice Malpas has told his players to ignore the "doom and gloom" coming from the stands.
There was also this from the Swindon Advertiser:

MAURICE Malpas has always been a glass half full' sort of man and is refusing to let the County Ground merchants of doom affect his own brand of positivity.
Is it something in the water down there?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

UK back in Gemini

The UK has been re-instated as a full member of the Gemini partnership.

This is very good news for the astronomers.

The UK will be able to sell some of its observing time to other partners and, with the approval of the board, to other countries. Hopefully that will save enough money such that deeper cuts to grants will not be necessary.

No good news for STP unfortunately, it seems that in the wacky, world of STFC:


We have to consider cross-disciplinary, cross council proposals from now on. This could be very beneficial in the long run, but is going to take some careful work and good communication between scientists and councils.

Of course STFC have done away with our technical infrastructure already and grants have been slashed on the basis of the brave, new world where some = all. So we are operating from the very far back foot. I hope that AGP and PPAN took note of today's exchange.

UPDATE I must note for the sake of clarity that Prof. Mason did say that 'some' and ' all' were not the same, but that the two statements ('withdrawing from some facilities' and 'withdrawing from all ground base STP') were not incompatible. Make of that what you will.


Tonight from 6pm for 24 hours the UK is going to try a little experiment at reducing it's energy usage. The "E-day" or Energy Saving Day is essentially trying to see how much difference we can all make by just turning electrical equipment off when we're not using it. There will be monitoring of our effect on the national grid.

So go on, let's see if we can all be efficient for 24 hours! Maybe it'll become a habit

Quote of the day

"Welcome to my world!"

Not entirely sure that he made many friends on the committee with that throwaway comment...

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On we go...

I am sure that by now you have all seen the transcript* from the latest evidence session.

It has some interesting bits in there. Let us just say that claims regarding the recent history of ground-based STP do not necessarily jibe with the memories of a number of STP scientists. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Tomorrow there is the third evidence session in the ongoing inquiry.

No other real news. Lots of work to do with an abstract to prepare for submission to NAM.

*Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record. The transcript is not yet an approved formal record of the proceedings.

Friday, February 22, 2008

A lesson

If you want to improve your visitor statistics, post at 00:30 GMT.

For some reason this blog started getting lots of hits via the Blogger nav bar (see where it says next blog up above? That's it there).

Lots of folk came and viewed my black squares.

Right, I am off home to see my dad and some old friends.

To those who are still depressed by the latest evidence session I would just say that you don't know if a u-turn is happening until it has happened.

Final shots

One of the nights I had my camera out and it wasn't tipping down, it was still pretty cloudy.

The lights from Tromso were looking pretty good reflected on the clouds behind the VHF radar so I thought I would try for an atmospheric shot.

I failed!

Even with the tripod and a decent exposure time, it came out blurry. Still not sure why.

Another problem I had was with the external light on the main EISCAT building.

It's bloody bright and goes off when a gnat farts!

I figured I might as well try and use it to my advantage and took a shot of the long shadows cast by my tripod and I on the snow. It's not fantastic but I find it quite satisfying.

An old friend

Here is a shot of Orion. Note the green tinge to the snow in the foreground, that is from the bright aurora overhead, behind and to my left when I took the shot.

This constellation is like an old friend to me, he seems to follow me around.

I can remember many a night as an undergraduate at Leicester, staggering back home (obviously only at the weekend!) across Vicky park and seeing Orion stood over the house. Funny how some things always stay with you.

Funnily enough the other evening I was walking home from work and it was a beautiful clear night (which is rare enough round here at this time of year) and once again Orion was leading the way.

Some Aurora blogging

Avid readers will know that when the sh*t hit the fan with the current funding crisis I was ensconced at the EISCAT site in Norway on campaign. You might recall that I complained about the weather. It was bloody awful in the latter half of the campaign, which is not great if you are using optical instruments to look at the aurora.

However, in the first week we did have some clear skies and I was able to do a little bit of photography. I had a new camera, a big Cannon EOS 400D to replace my trusty Cannon Powershot.

Sadly, I did not manage to get fully to grips with it before the rain came and so the photos are not as high quality as I might like. No matter, here are some:

Some nice aurora looking roughly south-west from the EISCAT mainland site in Norway.

You cannot see the really fine structure because I used a 20 second exposure.

The red glow over the mountain top is not auroral it is the lights from the city of Tromso, which is further round to the west, behind the mountains.

Now turning to look down the site road (more southward), we can see several arcs stretching across the sky.

Lights in the distance on the site road are from displays on new radar that has been installed on-site.

Thankfully there is no line-of-sight between our optical hut and the LEDs. Not sure why they are there really.

Here is the back of the great big VHF radar; size of a football pitch. It is being lit by the meagre light from the site.

No shots of the UHF dish this time. Well, no good shots anyway, I was experimenting with manual focusing at that time (I'm not very good with hands-on stuff, things just break usually) and it was not pretty.

Plus the time I did try and get shots of the UHF the VHF was running, which caused the outside light to come on. This meant that they tended to be a bit over-exposed.

With the weather turning bad I did not get much chance to rectify the situation.

[UPDATE I have been told that the images just look like big black squares and that I need to do some contrast stretching. What can I say, I posted this at 12:30 am and in a very dark office they looked great. I'll fix them when I have a chance]

[UPDATE 2 Right a bit of contrast fiddling and now you can see the wondrous view. Of course if you had just turned your lights off and closed the blinds you could have seen it anyway...]

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Scientific Bypasses

I was thinking about the current funding fiasco and the way in which the community has been consulted up to now, and noted a striking similarity to the following Douglas Adams quote from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy:

Mr Prosser said, "You were quite entitled to make any suggestion or protests at the appropriate time, you know."

"Appropriate time?", hooted Arthur. "Appropriate time? the first I knew about it was when workman arrived at my home yesterday..."

"But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months."

"Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn't exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything."

"But the plans were on display..."

"On display? i eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them."

"That's the display department."

"With a flash light."

"Ah, well, the lights had probably gone."

" So had the stairs."

"But look, you found the notice, didn't you?"

"Yes," said Arthur, "yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying 'Beware of the Leopard.'"

With apologies to Douglas Adams and his estate, I hope they don't mind me borrowing this.

New Application?

At lunchtime today we were on our way to the cafeteria when Em spotted a sign on the main meeting room door that said:


We wondered whether it was a new application. I can visualize a little wooden spoon appearing and saying: 'It looks like you are cooking a biriyani...'

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Today's evidence session

I did not get to hear all of the evidence session - a scheduled appointment prevented it. I did hear from colleagues that it was somewhat dis-heartening.

The 'future is bright' argument was wheeled out again.

Lots of hiding behind Haldane.

More on the percentage increases (a colleague of mine reckoned that the minister would not have the gall to trot that out again - hah!).

It seems that all the negative reaction has been orchestrated and so should be ignored. Now that is a compelling argument. Organisation = lies and exaggeration. Is that why we should trust STFC? They are so disorganised that they obviously must be above reproach.

The impression is that the dissenters are just fringe elements. The complainers I suppose. As a colleague says, I wear my angry scientist badge with pride.

Continuing commitment to the future of Harwell and Daresbury though it was far from clear that they had any clue of what was going to be happening there. But they were committed, so that is good. Except for all the people who are going to lose their jobs. Oh well, 'rocks on the road to a brighter future' and all that.

I am told that Prof. Sir keith O'Nions also said that other countries would be grateful to be in the position we are in. That is true, I am sure there are lots of third world countries who would love it. But as one colleague said, it is a ridiculous argument; it is like shooting someone in the kneecap and then telling them they are lucky they aren't in Darfur, where they would have been killed.

Lots of talk about how healthy physics is in the UK. Some nice slight of hand it would seem. Another of my colleagues used medical research as an example of how idiotic this argument was:
Let us imagine that it is the MRC that finds itself short of funds. It has to make tough decisions, so it decides to invest in cancer research and slash research into heart disease. Do we think that in a situation like that anyone would suggest that medical research was healthy? I think not.

There was some stuff on STP that I will not go into now. Suffice to say that there is a big disconnect happening somewhere...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Northern Lights

Nice article on solar-terrestrial physics has appeared in the Telegraph.

Highlights some interesting work being done by Colleagues in preston, Glasgow and Cambridge on sunspot as well as commenting on the idiocy of winding down UK involvement in this field at the current time.

Yes, STFC I know that it is 'only ground-based' but as we have said before this indicates your complete lack of understanding of how STP works.

There is a very nice movie of the aurora over there.

British photographer Mark Humpage captured the ghostly phenomenon as a team of British scientists announced that astronomers have missed a significant number since they were first observed by Chinese astronomers more than two millennia ago.

Mr Humpage, 42, spent six days shooting with cameraman Alister Chapman at Karasjok in the Arctic circle last week where temperatures hit -20ÂșC. "It was one of the most incredible things I've ever seen," says Mr Humpage.

"The Vikings believed the lights were contrails of Thor's chariot, pulled by three goats. I can believe this now. There were rivers of moving colours covering the whole sky from horizon to horizon.

It is hard to describe how fantastic it is to see the lights up close and personal. You tend to forget the cold and discomfort.

The simple things

Via Balloon Juice, this should not be as funny as I find it...


A few days ago I reported on the RAS statement condemning STFC's handling of the current funding crisis. Since then a number of people have complained about my criticism of STFC's diplomatic skills where I said:

Especially since, to an outside observer, STFC has been demonstrating the diplomatic skills of a retarded squirrel.

On reflection this was in poor taste and offensive. So I would like to make a formal apology to all retarded squirrels. The comparison was inexcusable.

Early Day Motion

Peter Soulsby MP has tabled an early day motion (EDM 919):

That this House notes with concern the recent Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) grant reductions to physics and astronomy research in UK universities and cuts to important programmes such as the Gemini Telescopes and the SPEAR radar; is further concerned at the impact this will have on the UK's international reputation in advanced physics; and calls for a change in the structure and leadership of the STFC.

The aim of these early day motions are to call for debate in the House of Commons and thereby draw attention to specific issues. It is also a way of gauging parliamentary support. I encourage all UK readers to write to their MP and encourage them to sign up. It may not lead to a change in STFC leadership (that some in the community seem to fear) but at the very least it will keep the issue front and centre and show that we cannot be steamrollered over quietly. Remember, STFC leadership don't think it is their position to fight our case so we have to do it!

With the dismal response from the government to the petition that we have seen so far and the stock sound-bites about percentage increases it is good to keep hammering at government until they get the message that we are not going away.

Find out how to contact your MP via:

Monday, February 18, 2008

Death of Big physics - the definitive answer

I notice that Ian Pearson MP has responded to the hard-hitting article in the New Statesman, Death of Big Physics. Sadly this looks to be a regurgitation of the same DIUS talking points that we have all had in all correspondence from DIUS. Light on substance, heavy in rhetoric.

I'm starting to repeat it in my sleep.

We are NOT stupid, stop treating us as if we are because it only makes you look stupid!

It seems that

[STFC] anticipates that the UK will remain at the forefront of global research.

This may be true, but our reputation will be trashed. Also it will be in-spite of STFC, because we have some damn fine scientists in this country even though they are under-supported by their research council.

Of course it talks about research in that segment of a sentence, not physics. Bit of double-speak perhaps?

Also the broadly level funding of physics exploitation grants, does that factor fEC in? If so they actually mean that there will be a reduction in volume of research. I am continuously impressed at the way in which STFC happily spins for its masters whilst spitting in the face of the scientists. Real nice.

By the way there is an interesting comment under the New Statesman article that purports to give a view from the inside:

05 February 2008

Looking from the inside the whole system is sick. 'Oversight' seems to only ever go one way. From the top down. All the mechanisms we had to set up a research-driven program of science have been systematically dismantled and replaced by a CEO model where the 'head' of STFC 'decides research priorities' and the rest of us are no better than robots. We need Mason to resign and even better, we need the control of the research agenda returned to the community of those who know what research is exciting and worth doing.

I can guarantee this would be a far better use of your tax money than rescuing investors in a failing bank.

Timely final sentiment.

PP supports RAS statement

Following the welcome statement from the RAS I see that the Particle Physics action group has sent an email to Keith Mason, Peter Knight and Peter Warry expressing their full support.

A positive response from STFC is required to restore confidence in the processes in the public funding of fundamental science in the UK and to begin to repair the damage that has been undoubtedly been done to our international reputation.

This is very good. Though I worry that STFC will just go straight back into spin mode and tell us how wonderfully they have been responding to the problem and that they understand our pain but hard choices need to be made. Oh and then they will tell us that physics has a bright future.

I doubt that much can be done whilst the current management are in place - I know many feel that even if STFC make changes now nothing will stop them from doing it all over again. Reports have it that irritation and annoyance is how STFC are perceived to have met the protests. That is not a good sign.

When the dust settles my field will have been destroyed and I will be off doing something else, life goes on. Except that next time, when more cuts have to be made there won't be any STP left to go, or Gemini, or ILC, or gamma ray astronomy, or Daresbury, or ATC, etc. So someone else will have to go. Think about it.

Next CSR, more hard decisions will have to be made, that is the message that is being quietly spread in a number of meetings. If you feel safe now, don't, because you aren't.

I wonder if Prof. Mason is a fan of the Clash, they once sang about having to make a hard decision. Perhaps he should consider that one.

The People of STFC

You may not have noticed but recently I have been a bit snide about STFC. It's okay if you did not notice as I have been very subtle about it.

Anyway I thought it important to stress something here. There are an awful lot of very good, hard working people in STFC who are trying to work under increasingly difficult circumstances. Not only are they dealing with a hostile and hurt community they are working under a regime of, well, I'll let you fill in the blank there.

Most of the folk on the ground in STFC want to help us do science, and now they have been put in a position where they have to say no to people with no real good reason. This cannot be pleasant for them, especially when coupled to the fact that many are in fear that their jobs are about to vanish.

Things are especially bad now when too few people are trying to cope with the fallout from the recent grants round, and I cannot imagine for one minute that it has been pretty. Too many grants have been sliced and diced due to a process that has lacked any engagement with, let alone respect for, the larger scientific community.

Friday, February 15, 2008

RAS condemnation already picked up

I see an article has appeared in the Telegraph that picks up on the RAS statement. I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the RAS to the air above the parapet. ;-)

RAS statement

In a positive move the council of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has sent a statement to STFC regarding their handling of CSR2007.

Mindful of very strong feelings in the entire astronomical community, the RAS Council expresses a lack of confidence in STFC’s handling of the current funding crisis.

The full text can be found here.

It is interesting to note that although this is quite a strong condemnation of STFC's conduct during the funding crisis the accompanying email to the STFC CEO (which was circulated to all RAS fellows) states that the RAS does not intend to pass this statement to the media or DIUS. I suppose this reflects the hopes of the RAS that they can still work with the current management of STFC.

I'm sure you all know my personal views on that.

Anyway, since the statement has now appeared publicly on their website I would be very surprised if it does not find itself in the hands of the media, DIUS and the IUS select committee.

There are some choice quotes in no particular order:

STFC has failed miserably to communicate with the community.
STFC claims that its Delivery Plan has been and is being arrived at through a process of Peer Review. Unfortunately, despite no doubt very hard work of those involved in this process on PPAN, PALS and Science Board, the community has no confidence in this process and is unlikely to accept the outcome as fair.
The requirement of confidentiality for members of Council, the Science Board, and PPAN and PALS, goes far beyond any legal requirements.
In making its bid to CSR2007, little emphasis was placed on the importance of these areas for UK science and for UK physics in particular.

I particularly like this one:

It was a catastrophic error not to set up an advisory structure below PPAN.
Catastrophic is a good word.

In dealings with international partners, STFC needs to take advantage of the contacts and diplomatic skills of members of the community.
Especially since, to an outside observer, STFC has been demonstrating the diplomatic skills of a retarded squirrel. Which is bizarre since we know from past experience of the many good people who work within the edifice who are good at this sort of thing.

Anyway, well done to the RAS for putting this out there. Of course it is far too late to help the many folks who's grants and entire research areas have been cut and destroyed by STFC in their economy drive.

I'll be interested to see how all the recent words on space exploration now pan out. I was not alone in noticing that the STFC delivery plan was essentially packaging for a host of space technology investigations. I am not against exploring space and I have conflicted feelings about manned space flight, I just wish it could be done without sacrificing so much important science that the UK has worked so long to build up.

20 years of Red Dwarf

On 15 February 1988, the Jupiter Mining Corporation vessel, Red Dwarf, first flew into the public conciousness.

It is hard to believe it has been that long. It looks as if the official web page is planning something to celebrate. This was quality sci-fi comedy (far superior to Hyperdrive).

I have been a fan of the show since I first saw it and have collected all episodes on DVD. It is a shame that the much touted film is yet to materialise. One suspects that if Hitchhiker's had done a bit better at the box office the likelihood of a cinematic version of Red Dwarf would have have been much stronger.

If you want to enjoy some of the best bits, YouTube has many BBC-sanctioned clips, including, "They're dead, Dave"

I should say that although my favourite parts come predominantly from the earlier series I have never been one of the purists who railed against the big differences that occurred in series 7 and particularly 8.

In fact I watched series 8 again very recently (i.e. last EISCAT campaign) and enjoyed it very much.

And that only had a little to do with the presence of Kochanski...

Been too busy to blog

Hopefully more will appear later today...

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

US space shuttle 'spy arrest'

The above title belongs to a headline on the BBC news page. Four people have been arrested in the US for passing secrets to the Chinese about the space shuttle and other programmes.

However, I have to admit that when I first read that line I immediately thought it meant that someone ON the space shuttle had been arrested for spying.

What a story that would be!

Global Warming saves lives!

The BBC has an article up about how global warming may save lives in the long run (at least in milder climes).

Essentially, even though severely hot summers can lead to increased fatalities (see France a couple of years ago) the milder winters means that death rates drop in a notoriously at-risk period.

A panel of scientific experts commissioned by the Department of Health and Health Protection Agency (HPA) has looked at the way the UK has responded to rising temperatures since the 1970s, and how the risks are likely to change.

While summers in the UK became warmer in the period 1971 - 2003, there was no change in heat-related deaths, while annual cold-related mortality fell by 3% as winters became milder - so overall fewer people died as a result of extreme temperatures.

Rather than physiological changes explaining our ability to adapt to rising temperatures, the report put this down primarily to lifestyle alterations: our readiness to wear more informal clothes, for instance, and the shift away from manual labour.

Now, my cynical inner voice (as quiet as it is on such a gloriously sunny day) is wondering how quickly those that dispute climate change will change tac. Again.

1) There is no global warming

2) There is global warming but it's got nothing to do with mankind (liberal conspiracy! or scientific fraud to get more funding!)

3) Mankind may have something to do with global warming but the sun has a much bigger effect

4) climate change is happening but it is a good thing and we should embrace it!

STFC comic relief

An American physics student in England thinks that we need a charity drive to help out STFC in their hour of need.

They want to model this on comic relief.

I am not sure whether the current situation is a comedy of errors or a tragedy quite frankly.

Here is one of the suggested jokes for a stand-up routine, there are more:

How many STFC chief execs does it take to fix a lightbulb?

Just one, but he’d rather send it to the moon.

Quote of the day

Today's quote is from someone who attended the G. W. Bush school of disaster management:

"cynically, if we were hit by a space weather event the whole world would change, but we are not in that world right now"

No, that's right! We aren't in that world, hurrah!

Puppies and kittens for everyone!

Seriously though, the implicit statement here is that the worth of STP is recognised, but since there is no current disaster we don't need to worry about it. That is far beyond cynical and demonstrates that the speaker is a pure bureaucrat.

This is not just a case of saying that:
'we know that if there is a big hurricane the levees may break, but we won't worry about it until it happens'

No, this is saying that:
'we think the levees might break with a big hurricane, but we aren't even going to properly investigate to see if that is true or not. And even if it is true then we're not going to do anything about it until they are broken. And then it'll be too late. So at least we have saved money.'

Monday, February 11, 2008

Some good news for UK astronomy

Via Paul Crowther's web page.

Terms for discussion of possible continued involvement in Gemini have been agreed. Since the UK has now committed to continue operations payments during 2008, and open negotiations for continued participation in Gemini (at some level), the board has conditionally reinstated 2008A UK observing time allocations for both telescipes.

The Board asks that the Chair and Designated Members, including the UK, meet face-to-face at the earliest opportunity to further discussion of possible continued UK involvement in Gemini.

It looks as if STFC has managed to do something right. Well done to those involved. Let us hope for astronomy's sake that they manage to hammer out a proper deal for continued access.

More money for Mars?

Little late again, but this is an interesting story:

The boss of the European Space Agency has asked his officials to find a new name for the flagship ExoMars mission.

But why?

Well essentially it is because it is no longer the same mission, it has developed into something bigger and better. Which is cool. But then this is not so cool:

"Now we have a scientific mission as much as a technological mission, meaning that the ExoMars 2008 is heavier, is more complex and is more costly." The increased cost may present real problems for some countries, however. In particular, the UK, which had signed up to be a lead partner on the mission, now faces having to find tens of millions of euros extra to maintain its position on the project.

Hmm, I wonder where they are going to find the extra money? How much does the CEO of STFC get? That might get them some way there; doesn't matter if its only a tiny drop in the ocean, STFC have shown that even the smallest amounts help.

Mr Dordain said he had been encouraged lately by the UK's attitude, which in the past he has described as "anomalous" because of the nation's relative reluctance to get involved in the agency compared with Germany, France and Italy.

"The UK is the second richest country in Europe and the sixth [largest] contributor in Esa," he told BBC News.

"And this is all the more an anomaly because there are a lot of capabilities in the UK; there is a fantastic scientific community, there are good industrial capabilities and it is a pity that the British government is not taking more benefit from these assets."

Hah! Yes, indeed, well depends on who you are thinking about really.

Quote of the day

A new feature here on Living in the Real World.

Who do you think said this in response to questions about STFC cutting off funding to STP?

"It was PPARC Council's decision to pull out of, or to run down at least, STP last time, you can argue about whether it was the right decision or the wrong decision, you know, it will depend on which group of scientists you chose to do your peer review"

Repeat after me, peer review is a blunt tool.

What they said

Here are some excerpts from the response of the the particle physics action group to the STFC spin press release:

Careful reading of these reveals little that is new.


The Council have acknowledged the impact its decisions would have, and that there was excellent science that it would not be able to accommodate in its plan, implicitly recognising that the protests have real substance - damage has been, and will be, done.

Well that's something; not much, but something.

We are still concerned that the Council seems to care more about presentation than the impact upon the careers of the people involved, who will see their research cancelled or curtailed, and the loss of UK leadership in several areas


Go and read it all.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The coming space storm

A recent article on MSNBC details the current discussion over whether the next solar cycle will be moderately strong, or moderately weak.(HT Ryan).

The following sums up some of the problems that can arise from solar-terrestrial interactions::

Daniel Baker, director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics at the University of Colorado-Boulder, noted that more than $200 billion of satellites in space can be affected by changes in solar radiation as the cycle rises and falls.

In addition, Baker said, other problems include:
  • Airlines flying over the pole face loss of communications that could force them to use a different, longer route at an added cost of as much as $100,000 per flight.
  • The Global Positioning System is immensely important to commerce and can be disrupted by solar activity.
  • Operating floating oil rigs in the ocean requires keeping them positioned within a few inches to prevent damaging drilling gear. "They have to know when GPS is going to be accurate."
  • There is an increased radiation risk to humans in space.
  • Currents can be induced in long electrical transmission lines, causing blackouts.

Dan then provides the real kicker:

In the past, such problems have been caused by solar superstorms, he said.

"Storms don't have to be so super any more" to cause problems, Baker said, as more and more systems become susceptible to solar effects.


You see we don't just go on about 'blackouts in 1989', Prof. Wade, it's just that that was when you stopped listening to us.

One thing I (and others) have been interested in is having the UK establish a proper UK space weather centre. That way we would not be wholly reliant on another country, no matter how friendly we are with them, for looking at something that is going to start causing more and more problems as our technology becomes more and more susceptible to space weather effects. Obviously with STP such a low science priority in the UK this looks like an unlikely endeavour and in the long run will be to the detriment of the country, especially when the publicly available options start to become pay-as-you-go.

both barrels

At a seminar in Edinburgh on 22 November 2007 Prof. John Womersley (Science and Technology Strategy, Director) gave some free advice:
  • fasten your seatbelts;
  • wait till you see the whole picture before reacting;
  • when the wagons are circled, remember to shoot outwards
Something that has just occurred to me is to wonder who it is on the outside that we should be shooting at. Surely not the government; Prof. Mason has said all along at how wonderful the government have been to us. Strange, perhaps Prof. Womersley meant someone else, or was not aware that the government aren't the bad guys in the beautiful world where the current problems are just 'rocks on the road to a brighter future.'

This has come up again because an editorial in Aviation Week, called Lost in the Mist (subscription required), makes reference to it. The editorial talks about how the MIST community ignored the last bit of advice from above, the loss of facilities such as Gemini and how it could all have been handled so much better, especially if money had been provided to allow for a more phased approach.

The Magnetosphere Ionosphere and Solar Terrestrial (MIST) interest group, far from shooting outward, has fired both barrels straight through the
wagon train.

True enough.

The thing here though is that it is only safe to be shooting out at the surrounding bad guys if the wagon-train leaders are not dancing around inside the circle, knifing you all in the kidneys whilst shouting that the bad guys outside are actually our bestest friends.

By the way does anyone else think that it is really funny that Prof. Womersley's talk ends with the 'Loony Toons' logo? Perfect.

Is that it???

I'm a little late to this party as Chris Lintott and the e-astronomer have both commented on the email that has been sent to all signers of the petition. Here it is:

You recently signed a petition relating to the Science and Technology
Facilities Council (STFC):

You may wish to know that the STFC issued a statement on its funding
plans today - you can read the statement on the STFC website by going


Downing Street petitions

Now if that is the only response to the petition we can expect then I am thoroughly disgusted and my faint warm glow in politics is thoroughly doused. I agree with Chris on the merit of the recent press releases from STFC:

The upshot of these not very clear documents is that nothing has changed; UK astronomy is still facing large cuts. It would have been nice if the government has responded to that fact instead of saying the same thing over again.

The thing is that I cannot for one moment think that those releases were for us folk who have been following this crisis from the start. No they are solely for the good folk who signed the petition who might now wonder whether this solves the problem. I am not just being an arse here, one of my family members who signed emailed me to ask whether this news meant things were better, worse or just the same, and she is no idiot.

STFC are spinning like tops and the government are telling us to look at the pretty flashing colours. Pathetic.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

more media

This is good (from

THE Scottish Government has intervened to voice concerns to Westminster over the threat to Edinburgh's Royal Observatory.
Around 50 jobs are at risk at the UK's Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC), which is based at the observatory on Blackford Hill, because of cuts in government funding for science.

Now Enterprise Minister Jim Mather has written to John Denham, Secretary of State at the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, warning the cuts could damage world-leading research.

I hope this has some effect.

The other prong.

The current crisis with astronomy and particle physics in the UK is a two-prong problem. Recently I have been concentrating more on one of those prongs, the way in which STFC does business. Recently I have to give them a smidgeon of credit as they have been making moves (or at least the right sounds) to accommodate some of our demands in terms of engagement and transparency. Of course these come too late to save much of the science that has been destroyed by their ineptitude to date, but at least it is a step in the right direction.

The other prong is the bigger problem in many ways. STFC finds itself £80 million short and though it is not clear exactly why that is the case (apart from the government funding more medical research - something the STFC CEO "cannot argue with") we are left with a hole in the budget. To illustrate the problem here is a plot of the budget post CSR:

This demonstrates the fallacy behind the 13.6% that is being touted. Clearly STFC is getting the rough deal in terms of budget increase.

Interestingly, I had a reply from Ian Pearson MP to a letter I sent regarding the way money was being spent (with regard to comments about Haldane). It was the stock reply letter that so many of us are so familiar with these days; however there was a hand written note at the bottom that said the minister was talking to DIUS and officials and STFC over how decisions are made. Perhaps I am naive but it made me feel that messages are getting through.

Did you say it's a rock?

Following his 'It's a rock' post, Chris Lintott has got a nice article up on the BBC website.

Some good ideas

Partly to make amends for not pointing out that the e-astronomer also made some welcome, positive comments about STP but mostly to highlight some good ideas, and at least some good jumping off points I direct the interested reader's attention to this post. Here are some quotes:


  • Short term : a large part of the current crisis stems from STFC inheriting underprovisioning by CCLRC, causing an unexpected step change in problems for particular segments of physics. There is therefore a strong case for targeted assistance from DIUS. This should be primarily for protecting grants income rather than changing STFC policy decisions, and should be aimed at smoothing out problems. The chaos comes from d£/dt.
  • Empower the Physics HEI community. We are problem solvers and can do a good job if trusted. First and foremost this means improve engagement with the HEI community - not “consultation” but “engagement”
  • Restructure so that delivery is separated from policy and funding. STFC has a massive conflict of interest, as did CCLRC before it. Scotland can easily do its part here via the ATC and EPCC; the elephant in the room is the power and influence of RAL. (Apologies to my RAL chums - this is a political statement, not a technical one)
  • Make the case for economic impact of Physics, including fundamental physics. This is partly on (long term) technology return, but mostly is about skills; training of people at all levels, and attraction of young people into science.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Research in Antarctica

Amongst all the doom and gloom there are still a few good stories out there. Last week's Time Higher Education (or the THE) had a news story on a new radar system being installed in Antarctica:

A team from Bath's department of electronic and electrical engineering is testing the theory that, while the lower atmosphere is warming, the upper atmosphere, or mesosphere, is cooling by as much as 1C a year.

Very topical and important work.

The mesosphere, which is about 50 to 62 miles above the planet's surface, is notoriously difficult to investigate, but it is crucial in exploring climate change.

"The mesosphere has been called the miners' canary for climate change: it is very sensitive, and the changes there may be larger than in any other part of the atmosphere,' says Nick Mitchell, who leads the project at Bath.

"Evidence of such changes comes from sightings of unusual clouds in the polar mesosphere, which may mark the onset of long-term cooling of the upper atmosphere."

Good stuff.

Those clouds also coincide with radar returns from many different types of ionospheric radars from HF to UHF. These polar mesospheric summer echoes (PMSE) seem to be related to both turbulence in the mesosphere and the formation of ice crystals. Experiments with the EISCAT facility in Norway have shed some light on their make-up with great sucess.

Similar looking radar returns also occur in the winter mesosphere, though in a different height regime. It is not clear what causes them since the winter mesopshere is much warmer than the summer and ice crystals should not form. Some interesting theories about turbulence and infrasound have been put forward but it is still all up in the air (excuse the pun).

I am fortunate enough to have run the first experiment using an ionospheric heater in conjunction with radar measurements at EISCAT on PMWE. This opened the door a little wider to the possibility of dust particles being the cause, but it is far from certain. If there are dust particles there where do they come from? It all still needs working out.

This is an area where ground-based instruments have proved vital in advancing our understanding. We have lost some of the infrastructure that would have been important for the UK to keep playing our role in these studies but thanks to the University of Bath and BAS, the UK will still have a role to play.


As wonderful as it might be, we cannot have Journey at the top of the blog for too long, and so...

The e-astronomer said something particularly interesting in a recent post:

One of the victims of the STFC funding crisis is ground-based solar-terrestrial physics : STFC decided to pull out of ground-based radar systems. A few years back, many mainstream astronomers would have quietly let it slip, as it seemed rather dull compared to cosmology, solar physics, or planet hunting : good stuff but not top priority

This is a view that most STP scientists long recognise from our astronomy colleagues, and in general I can understand it, but coming from the other direction (I don't care how many spiral galaxies there are - it's dull).

Let me throw another quote at you. From a meeting between three early-career scientists (who formed S3) and Prof. Keith Mason, then head of PPARC, the following was reported:
Negative feeling in PPARC towards STP has built up over the last decade or so. Often when presented with our science all people hear is "Blah blah blah reconnection blah blah". We were told that STP scientists have not done a good job of relating our science and the relevance of our science to the wider scientific community. However, it has to be said that when many an STP scientist is presented with cutting-edge astronomy all we hear is "Blah blah blah Active Galactic Nuclei blah blah".

The last illustrates the problem. 'Astronomy' covers a wide field of different topics under one blanket, and Solar-Terrestrial Physics has long been placed in there, but do we really belong? There is a common bond between much of the astronomy disciplines that I am not sure exists with astronomy and STP. In fact STP contains sub-disciplines, though since we work in a joined-up fashion to understand the system that could be less of an issue now than it once was.

STP might be considered dull by an astronomer but I think cosmology is boring - they have certainly failed to make the case with me as to why I should be interested. But here is the thing: I don't hold the purse strings so they are not required to make the case to me - that is the way it works. STP is a smaller field than astronomy and it is the astronomers who hold the purse strings. In the past things seem to have moved along and although there have been tight times and grumbles that astronomers don't get it, STP has muddled through.

This is not a gripe at astronomers; I am pointing to a terrible flaw in the system, exacerbated when the people in charge of the edifice responsible for the funding fail to recognise the problem. [Emphasised for those who fail to actually read things.]

We have been told that representation on the decision making bodies is not important, that it doesn't help. But then we have also been told that if you have a committee made up of two different groups you can get very different answers; which suggests that any real power in a situation would lie in the hands of the people who dictate the make-up of the committees. Well, I think this needs some testing and so I propose an experiment:

For the next 5 years, all boards and committees should be populated by solar, planetary and STP scientists. If representation is not important then STFC should have no problem sanctioning such a move and they surely wouldn't expect the astronomers to complain since it would make no difference.

Let's turn things around a bit more.

How many astronomers here have made the effort to interact with the STP community to see whether our science holds any interest for them? It could be many, it could be few, I really don't know.

Anecdotal reports from the NAM held in Leicester a few years back are that the sessions that included some planetary magnetosphere work were poorly attended. Last year MIST acted upon the suggestion that we needed to engage more with our astronomy colleagues and folded our annual spring meeting into the 2007 NAM meeting. I enjoyed it very much, but how much cross-pollination actually occurred? I don't recall seeing unfamiliar faces in the MIST/UKSP talks. Perhaps I just missed them, and I doubt that many MIST/Solar people went to astronomy sessions (non-plenary).

Our community was told to dance to a certain tune in terms of engagement and that is what we have been doing. Was anyone told to join the dance with us, or were we expected to make the moves on our own? One could argue that since we were the ones who had 'failed' to make our case, it was all on us, but then had we failed or was no one really listening to our case because it didn't fit with their world view? It is a two way street.

This year at MIST and NAM we have some joint MIST-NAM sessions and I am going to be watching closely to see how many from each community attend.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Don't stop believing!

Sometimes you just need to take a break...

Why this?

Why not?