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Friday, October 31, 2008

IoP meeting

So did anyone go to the IoP meeting about the Wakeham review?

I was interested but was unfortunately too busy to make the journey, plus with Em being at 36 weeks gone I am getting reluctant to go galavanting off down half the country.

I did try to view the presentation on-line but one needed to log in to view it - something I had not seen mentioned anywhere. I assumed that this would be an IoP log-in and since I am not a member (long and dull story involving Ade, a belt and my enduring laziness) I asked Em to have a look. She had no success and by then it wasn't worth getting in touch to find out what I needed to do to view it.

I did find that if I kept hitting refresh I could see the slides, but that only gave half a show. Plus I was more interested in what was said in the discussion session.

So anything interesting happen?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Physics in danger of becoming male, white and upper middle class

...says white, upper-middle class man.

Actually the article in the Times Higher Education says a bit more than that.

A recent informal survey of the UK STP community produced the following data:

As you can see the gender split shows some variation between grades and the numbers are not great but they are not as bad as one might think. On the whole STP seemed to be attracting women physicists such that the total percentage was about a third of all STP scientists in the UK last year were women.

This chart was taken from this report, which was submitted by MIST to the Wakeham review. Well worth a read if you are not sure why STP is worth doing in the UK.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bailout? I think not.

We all heard about the £9 million that STFC found down the back of their sofa. On the face of it its very nice and should alleviate some of the 'pain' yet we still have to see how the money gets spent.

However, I think a number of our colleagues in the wider astronomy community might secretly be hoping that additional cash will be found to plug the still gaping blackhole.

I think they are waiting in vain...

from the BBC:

Grants for pupils in England starting university next year will be cut because the government overestimated how many would be eligible for support.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has admitted it has a funding shortfall of £200m, after improving financial support this year.

Oh dear, oh dear. Poor old DIUS seems to be having a bad year.

John Denham must be pulling his hair out after the past year of bad headlines. First they underestimate the amount of money needed to support STFC and now they underestimate the amount needed to support student grants.

The upshot is that DIUS are now looking to save money, first by reducing the income floor for studnet eligability and secondly via 'departmental savings'.

As far as research goes, there certainly won't be extra money to supplement STFC's budget just as most of us always thought.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A step up

Well it seems that our friend Ian Pearson has not been punished for his tenure as science minister in DIUS, rather Gordon Brown has decided to promote him.

According to the BBC, Pearson is now the economic secretary to the Treasury.

Well, following the last CSR it is quite clear that Pearson know how to make economies so I am sure he will relish his appointment. Of course now he is in another ideal position to screw with us next time if he so desires, but without the visibility and chance of backlash.

His promotion make me feel quite confident that my opinion of the Prime Minister is correct.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Pearson gone, Drayson in

The BBC is reporting that Lord Paul Drayson has been made science minister.

Drayson holds a PhD in robotics and is a successful businessman. This makes him ideal for pushing the government agenda of converting our science into economic payback.

This is not just a straight shoehorn in to replace the former minister, it seems to go hand in hand with an upgrading of the position:

Lord Drayson said his appointment represented an upgrading of the science minister's role. He is to attend cabinet and will chair a new Cabinet Committee for Science and Innovation. The committee's task will be to ensure integration across government.

Some endorsements have already come from the movers and shakers:

"We welcome this appointment and look forward to working with Lord Drayson, whose proven interest in technology can only benefit the UK engineering community," said Dr Scott Steedman, vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

And Professor Colin Blakemore, former head of the Medical Research Council, added: "There's no doubt he's been very creative in recognising opportunities to move from basic research into innovation in his own career, so he chimes very much with the government's current focus on translational research.

"However, I do think he can be trusted to defend the investment needed for the basic research which is essential for innovation in the future."

Phil Willis has welcomed his appointment:

The Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, who is also chairman of the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, said Lord Drayson could make an excellent advocate for science.

"We desperately need a champion like him in the run-up to the next spending review," he commented.

"At both the graduate and post-doctoral level there is a very serious shortage of scientists and engineers. Given that 70% of the 20:20 workforce have already left school, we need to convert people already in work to science and engineering skills.

"I hope Paul Drayson will grasp the seriousness of this and make it his priority."

Finally, the new minister's first words in the job seem to be encouraging, particularly the final quoted sentence:

"Young people need to be inspired into opting for science and engineering careers.

"Look at me - I have had a blast. I am out here racing cars because I was a successful biotech entrepreneur. That depended on me studying for a PhD, and that depended on me studying maths, physics and chemistry at A-Level.

"I was also inspired by cool projects in the 60s and 70s like the space programme, and we now need to inspire the next generation with similar cool projects."

At time of writing I cannot find information on the fate of Ian Pearson and I doubt we will ever know why he was shuffled out.

We can always speculate of course, perhaps the Prime Minister was less than impressed with the mighty clusterf*ck that occurred with STFC on his watch. Maybe he has been moved onto bigger and better things.

Who knows?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Quiescent Sun

By sheer coincidence there is an article in today's Financial Times regarding the current inactivity of the Sun. It is a nice article minus the hyperbole that seems to often surround discussion of this current solar minimum.

Back on Earth, the Sun’s inactivity ought to represent good news for the companies that operate satellites, run power grids or make terrestrial radio systems, which are all vulnerable to damage and disruption from solar storms. In one interpretation of its long-term implications, however, the effects could be far from benign.

True enough. The article does make the point that big storms can still happen at solar minimum and so complacency should be avoided. It reminds us of the Carrington event:

What astronomers believe was the most intense eruption from the Sun for several centuries took place in August 1859 during an otherwise fairly tranquil solar cycle. The aurora borealis or Northern Lights – the vivid photoelectric display triggered when solar particles hit Earth’s upper atmosphere – moved down from its normal polar haunts to put on a spectacular show as far as the tropics. Other effects included putting the world’s nascent telegraph network out of action for several hours.

If such a solar superstorm occurred now, it would cause tens of billions of dollars of damage to communications and navigational satellites and cause continent-wide electrical blackouts that might last for weeks, say Sten Odenwald and James Green, Nasa scientists who have analysed the 1859 event.

Nothing like this has happened in the Space Age, the closest was a big storm in October 1989. Of course knowing that events like these occur is no part of a justification for funding into investigating this highly important and societally relevant topic.

The CEO of STFC is on record as saying that if we lived in a world where a big storm had occurred STP would be properly regarded, but we don't live in that world so cutting funding is justified. Indeed others think that we STPers argue that the October 1989 storm is our main excuse for studying STP, a claim so asinine and moronic that it stunned a scientific audience into silence.

Anyway, climate popped up in the FT article:
Experts are reluctant to predict the consequences for Earth and its inhabitants because there are so many complex interactions between the Sun’s output, the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field, and cosmic radiation from outer space. Some climatologists say that, over a period of decades, a quieter Sun means a cooler Earth, although the relationship between solar activity and climate is particularly controversial.

Controversial is not a word I would use. Rather I would suggest that the relationship is poorly understood.

There is a clear link between the Sun's activity and climate and contrary to what some believe this is accounted for by climatologists. There have been some recent hypotheses that suggest that recent climate change can be placed totally (or nearly so) on the Sun (the article mentions this near the end) but the evidence has been far from compelling unless you have the 'eye-of-faith*'.

What is needed is a better understanding of the mechanisms by which the Sun affects the Earth environment so that we can put proper numbers and limits on the effect. By wanting to study the link most scientists have no agenda; we aren't trying to 'prove' that the global warming sceptics are right, nor are we trying to prove the manmade CO2 hypothesis correct. Rather we just want to know what affect there is and how it works, maybe it is huge and dominates over anthropogenic effects (I doubt it) or maybe it is quite small but important for staving off the worst effects of CG during a solar-quiet period.

Of course, one side product of the quiet sun is that we have had lots of nice, sustained, coronal holes that lead to high speed solar wind streams and high latitude auroral displays. This is nice for my research as I am looking at energy input to the magnetosphere during these events and how it is distributed throughout the system.

Another interesting aspect of the solar minimum mentioned in the FT article is the hazards to manned space travel:

This quiet period would not be a good time to launch a manned space mission beyond Earth orbit, to the Moon or Mars, adds Prof Crooker. Astronauts would face the harmful impact of increased cosmic radiation, which would outweigh the reduced likelihood of solar storms.
It is easy to think that now is the best time to launch manned missions out beyond the protective magnetosphere but the truth is that the issue is more complex than that. At solar maximum the solar wind affords better protection from the constant, though relatively weak, bombardment of cosmic rays. Huge flares and CMEs at solar maximum can cause severe damage and are incredibly dangerous, but the sustained exposure to cosmic rays during minimum is arguably the more serious problem.

During transient flares and CMEs astronauts can hide behind appropriate shielding; with a constant bombardment of cosmic rays the astronauts would have to be hiding all the time or risk death (or aquiring super-powers).

The article was nice timing with the release of the Wakeham review, but totally unconnected. I have some thoughts on the Wakeham review report but they can wait until later.

*'eye-of-faith' refers to the ability to look at a scatter plot of data and draw a nice straight line through it representing where you think it should be.

Image of blank solar disc taken by SOHO/MDI, image of coronal hole from the Hinode X-ray Telescope; both hosted by

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Wakeham review released at 5pm....

...along with the joint RCUK-Government response.

And I have to go to an antenatal class.

Bloody hell this government is clever, timing the release of the report so as to bury my response in tomorrow's news cycle when any snark I have will be stale and old hat.


I suggest that the keen amongst you keep an eye on the relevant website.

Where have I been???

Not so much on the blogging front in recent weeks. This is mostly because I have been pretty busy doing the research I am paid to do as well as a spot of travelling.

I went to the Space 08 meeting in London a few weeks back. That was, in my opinion, something of a mixed bag; some interesting things, some pointless things. The panel session was interesting, especially the chap who had an entertaining rant at the government. Also space weather got a big mention as an essential component of any endeavour to increase our presence in space.

Then I went to China for a week, a counry I have never had a huge desire to see. The meeting was something of a mixed bad (deja vu?), but I learned a thing or three and managed to scrape a few ideas into my head.

China itself was... interesting. Not a country I could fall in love with, though Shanghai was impressive. Of course I was a bit biased against as I spent my 32nd birthday travelling (and lost hours due to time zones). The best bit that made up for it was that I got to see my friend David who has been living in China for a couple of years now. Big Highlight.

Also, did you know that there is a Hooters in Shanghai?

I have, of course been keeping up with all things 'STFC-crisis'; sadly it has not been fixed or gone away, rather it has been bubbling away under the surface. You can see an example of this in Andy's blog; he starts on one topic and it rapidly skews around to STFC. I think some people still underestimate the strength of feeling out in the community about this. Some give the impression (intentional or not) that we should shut up and get on with our research; which is a wee bit rich coming from someone busily engaging in the discussion.

Anyway rumour has it that the Wakeham review of Physics will be made public today. That would be nice given it was presented to RCUK and DIUS a couple of weeks ago.

Lots of whispers and scuttlebut about that; particularly suggesting that recommendations were stronger but have since been watered down. Of course, there is little in the way of solid substantiation so who knows. We shall just have to wait and see what aria the fat lady chooses to sing and any other comments the Wakeham review panel might make.

A new start

Well it's that time of year again.

Freshers Week is upon us here and following a few days of truly lovely weather it has been pissing down with some enthusiasm.

To be fair, it's only right that new students should really get a feel for the normal weather up here.

What is a little depressing is the mess that has already accumulated. I took a stroll to the centre of campus yesterday and was disappointed to see that the reams of cellotape are already being employed to hold up tatty posters on walls and columns. This ignores the swanky new notice-boards that have been put up for just such a purpose. Plus the hoardes of students handing out flyers are not a million miles away from the piles of discarded fliers, thrown almost as soon as they are taken.

On the plus side, I clearly don't yet project the world-weary look of most academics and researchers as I had to keep refusing the student-offer handouts.

Oh, and I am going to be teaching again. Only for a couple of days in February (plus mini-projects) though.