Trouble at the top

In my email this morning was a message of support for UK astronomy from a concerned citizen. Perhaps they had heard an interview on the Today Programme with Professor Brian Cox or seen the news coverage on the BBC, in the Times, in the Guardian and elsewhere. What made this particular Wednesday special is that the Parliamentary Select Committee of MPs that were investigating the STFC funding crisis have just released their report. I haven't had chance to read it myself yet but I hear that it makes interesting reading and is not a whitewash.

Of course, we should remember that Professor Keith Mason probably never wanted the crisis he is presiding over; the problem arises from the merger of PPARC and CCLRC and the subsequent funding settlement that the newly created (and unable to defend itself) STFC received from the Government.

"… in merging two Research Councils, one research community has been saddled with the debt of another, despite assurances from the Government that STFC would be formed without any legacy issues." - Select Committee Report

Of course, the management of the crisis and lack of communication within STFC and the rest of the scientific community is the responsibility of the STFC management. As always, check out Paul Crowther's renowned wesite for the full, gory details about the crisis.

I hope the situation improves soon and everyone can get back to doing some real science.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 30th Apr 2008 (09:47 BST) | Permalink

Sky At Night Magazine Podcast

One of the most popular UK astronomy monthly magazines is the BBC's Sky At Night Magazine (the other is Astronomy Now). The magazine has now launched a new podcast. The first episode includes interviews that Will made in Belfast during the UK National Astronomy Meeting. The free podcast can be found on iTunes, on the Astronomy Media Player and as an RSS feed for those that use other podcatching software.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 26th Apr 2008 (15:27 BST) | Permalink

Galaxy Zookeepers Live

Some of the Galaxy Zookeepers (notably Chris Lintott) are at Kitt Peak Observatory taking observations of some interesting galaxies. You can keep up with their observations on the Galaxy Zoo blog and Chris is also maintaining a twitter feed for live updates. Of course, as I write this, they've gone to bed. It is now morning in Arizona and all good optical astronomers should be sound asleep. Here is the stunning view they get.

Kitt Peak
View from Kitt Peak CREDIT: Galaxy Zoo Blog

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Saturday 26th Apr 2008 (14:55 BST) | Permalink

(Don't) Name a star

Two years ago I wrote about companies that let you name stars. It is one of the more popular posts on my blog with many finding it after searching for star naming online. Many of the comments I have received on that post are from people who have bought or have been bought 'star names'. They are generally of the view that 'it is only a bit of fun' and think I need to 'chill out'.

My comments on that post were really written from the frustration of having to deal with the fall-out of the star naming business. I get grieving people asking me about the star named after their relative. I try to be a gentle as possible with those people and encourage them to look at the night sky while trying to explain that it is really just a novelty item. People do not like to think that the deep and meaningful gift they've been bought (and they are meant in a deep and meaningful way by the purchaser) was a novelty item. I don't blame them. I hold the star naming companies responsible.

Stuart (no, not me) over at Cumbrian Sky has written an excellent post on star naming. He has had similar experiences to me and really does a good job of explaining why I find it so reprehensible. I encourage you to read the full article.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 25th Apr 2008 (15:51 BST) | Permalink

2009 approaches

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 (IYA) is approaching. Many people all over the planet are working on projects that will take place throughout the year and leave a legacy well into the future.

In an attempt to stay positive for 2009 I've decided to put my Save Astronomy banner to one side especially given that nothing is going to change with the UK Government/STFC until the Wakeham Review (now underway) reports back (and even then it may not change anything). Whatever happens to UK-based astronomy, there is still lots to do for IYA.

The IYA coordinating team - composed of astronomers, educators and others from all over the planet - are planning a whole series of cornerstone projects and are encouraging others to plan activities too. If you are in a local astronomical society you may be planning things already. If you are not in an astronomical society or club of some kind, now might be a good time to consider joining one.

There are plenty of cool projects suggested. One involves giving as many people as possible the chance to look at the night sky through a telescope. Part of that involves a "telescope amnesty" to encourage people to dust off telescopes locked up in cupboards or basements and take them to IYA events to allow others to see the beauty of the night sky too. I'll be trying to do some urban guerilla astronomy too.

It's going to be fun. Are you ready?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 25th Apr 2008 (15:02 BST) | Permalink

Something found - may or may not be dark matter

At work this morning there was a little discussion about the possibility that dark matter had been detected by an experiment in Italy. Cosmic Variance (and now Phil) has the news of a paper (not yet peer reviewed) from the DAMA experiment which is looking for the collision of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPS).

It would appear that the DAMA folks have a very good detection of an annual modulation to the low energy signal they have been observing. What does that mean? Basically, because the Earth orbits the Sun you would expect it to pass through different densities of dark matter at different times of the year. The signal they observe shows a very convincing yearly variation. That doesn't appear to be under dispute.

What most people seem to be hesitant about is the claim that this is dark matter. There are other things that it could also be and at the moment I'm not clear if this particular experiment can distinguish between those possibilities. So, in summary, this is a detection of something; it could be dark matter but it could also be something else. Whatever it is, it looks interesting. As I find out more about this I'll add updates.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 21st Apr 2008 (18:31 BST) | Permalink

2009: The Astronomical Odyssey

Amongst the amateur and professional astronomical community things are starting to hot up in preparation for a fantastic year of astronomy starting in January. As Rob points out, there is now a stunning trailer available in a variety of formats all the way from YouTube quality up to HD (about 86 MB). There are some great visuals and it includes extracts of an excellent animation zooming out from the VLT to the HST that Lars Lindberg Christensen showed at a public talk at NAM the other week.



Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 17th Apr 2008 (19:48 BST) | Permalink

The Jodrell Bank Song

When the STFC announced that funding for MERLIN/e-MERLIN might be axed, and Jodrell Bank Observatory said that that could lead to closure of the observatory, I don't think anyone quite expected the public outcry. Local media in Cheshire and Manchester took it upon themselves to campaign to save the Observatory using the 76-m Lovell Telescope as the focal point. The Manchester Evening News started a campaign as did local radio station Silk FM. Silk FM have now released a campaign video to YouTube. There can't be that many scientific organisations/facilities that get unsolicited, popular campaigns to save them.



Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 15th Apr 2008 (17:33 BST) | Permalink

Where is it looking? - part 2

When people visit working astronomical observatories one of the questions they often ask is "where is it looking?". There is something quite exciting about knowing that the telescope you are stood next to is staring at a planetary nebula or perhaps measuring the lensed light of some of the most distant objects we can see in the universe. You are seeing awesome scientific research in action.

One of my aims is to make it easy to answer this question. As of a year ago, there were already a couple of observatories that provided real-time information on their websites. That is a good start but to do cool things with the data - such as piping it into Google Sky or MS World Wide Telescope - required people with some coding know-how to make custom programs to parse them. As long-term readers of this blog will know, I've been gradually edging towards making this a bit easier and getting the question answered for as many telescopes as possible.

My first step was to get the Jodrell Bank and MERLIN telescopes onto Twitter. Twitter isn't ideal as it only allows 140 characters, but as a by-product it created a fairly consistent RSS feed. My next step was to define a basic XML format (see posts 1, 2, 3 and 4) that would display just enough basic telescope information to be usable and still easy enough for most people to create. If you have the need, you can now grab the telescope pointing information in a consistent set of XML files. There is even a Google Sky version - just post the kml feed address into the search box if you use the web-based Google Sky. On an aside I'll admit that until today there had been an epoch error with the Google Sky feed; sometimes the telescopes were pointing at the B1950 coordinates rather than J2000. That is all sorted now thanks to some great tools I downloaded for some other ideas I'm working on (more on those some other time).

Google sky
Jodrell Bank Observatory's 42ft telescope observing position displayed in the web-based version of Google Sky. CREDIT: Google Sky/Jodrell Bank Observatory

There are still some things that need doing. First of all, the output still isn't great. One problem I have is knowing what object is actually being observed. This is known to the array controller but is not accessible to the interwebs due to various historical and technical restraints. To get around this I use a look-up table of likely radio objects that includes pulsars, calibration sources, galaxies, and some recent supernovae. Effectively, I semi-intelligently guess the likely object. I know there are excellent tools such as NED and Simbad that can do look-ups by position but just taking the object nearest to the reported (and slightly degraded) position isn't always the best thing to do. Perhaps future control systems for e-MERLIN will provide easier access to the information. That is a potted history of where I've got to.

I should note that other people such as Alasdair Allan have already put Virtual Observatory Event notifications on the web in a variety of formats including Google Sky tupperware. I see that as complementary to what I'm doing.

My plan now is to start getting other telescopes to do similar things in time for the International Year of Astronomy 2009. If you have access to telescope pointing information - professional or amateur - I would encourage you to let people know what your scope is looking at by providing the information in one easy to consume format or another. Let's fill Stellarium, Google Sky, World Wide Telescope and a multitude of other web-enabled applications with real-time observations.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 11th Apr 2008 (20:34 BST) | Permalink

Carnival of Space 49

Will Gater is hosting the 49th Carnival of Space this week. As usual everything from Mars, to supernovae, to Dyson Spheres are covered. Go check it out for some of the best astronomy on the web this week.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 11th Apr 2008 (16:58 BST) | Permalink

Can we fix it?

Last week in Belfast the Chief Executive of STFC - Keith Mason - showed a slide with e-MERLIN now apparently no longer in line to be cut. When questioned as to the apparent about-turn from the Programmatic Review, Keith said that the astronomy community were "deliberately mis-understanding" him. If you have a spare hour or two you can listen to the whole thing for yourself. You can also read Andys take on it too.

Basically, STFC can't afford everything that they were already paying for last year even if the Government insists that budgets are up. STFC are going to cut projects that have already been classed as "excellent" by the peer review process. Gemini and e-MERLIN are both possibly safe (for now) but only after lots of negative press coverage. I suppose none of this should be too surprising and follows a style of government similar to that discussed on the This American Life podcast last week; we may put up a bit of a fight but they know that after a few apparent victories they will still make the cuts. The ruck in the carpet just pops up elsewhere on the priority list. Newsnight's Susan Watts does a fairly good job of summing everything up with a long package on tonight's programme. Andrew Jaffe has comments on that package.

I don't think we should be happy about STFC's funding settlement from Government even if Keith Mason thinks it was great. I'm not happy that STFC won't be promoting science to the government and astronomers will have to do that themselves. I'm not happy that STFC thinks that scientists shouldn't expect to be paid properly. I'm not happy that "excellent" projects will be cut. I'm not happy that good people in Swindon, Daresbury, Edinburgh, and Oxfordshire will probably lose their jobs.

Can UK astronomy recover from this mismanagement? In the words of Bob the Builder and a possible US Presidential candidate, "yes we can". Given the current economic climate, and Keith Mason's impression of the Iraqi Information Minister, I'm finding it hard to believe at the moment.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 10th Apr 2008 (01:29 BST) | Permalink

Gone naked

You may be wondering what happened to the design. It's taken the day off because Wednesday 9th April 2008 is CSS Naked Day. The point of the day is promote web standards and accessibility. Basically, that means that websites should still be usable even if the design has been removed and they should appear in some kind of sensible order. I hope that mine does.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 08th Apr 2008 (23:15 BST) | Permalink

Community Meeting

There have been plenty of interesting results in talks and posters announced at the UK National Astronomy Meeting. At the same time there has been the looming STFC Community Forum where the plebs - people like me - get to here what the powers-that-be at STFC have to say first hand. I wasn't expecting too much from Keith Mason given his public responses and he lived up to that expectation. I won't go into the whole meeting here as it was twittered and Chris blogged live so check those out.

One question, or rather answer, that particularly caught my attention originated from a solar physics student. He said "As a PhD student in solar physics and one who is, or certainly was, looking at having a long career in this area my question is: why, considering the current climate, should I and other students take the risk of continuing to do research in this area?". This brought a round of applause from the audience. Walter Gear and Mike Bode (great astronomers) said that he should continue because there are some solar space missions coming up (e.g. Zeus) and there is lots of work within Europe on this area.

After a further comment by the PhD student, John Womersley - Director of Science Strategy at STFC - said "You should do this because it is fun, because it is rewarding to you personally, because you enjoy it...". The PhD student interrupted him by saying "That is true but I do need to live as well". John Womersley then responded by saying "Absolutely but, you know, if you cared about money you wouldn't be a scientist at all". I can't quite convey how condescending and insulting I found that response, even though I know it was probably meant to be a sympathetic and humorous one, so I won't try.

Given that we appear to be able to do nothing about the current funding situation I have my own questions for STFC. What is STFC doing now to ensure a good result for particle physics and astronomy in the next Comprehensive Spending Review period in less than three years time? Are they lobbying government explaining why the areas of science they cover are so important or useful? Are they explaining the importance of blue skies research for the long-term benefit of society vs solely focussing on short-term economic gain? Will they tell government about all the great research done on relatively small grants in the UK?
I'm happy to be positive, to help do some of this but I want to know that the person at the top actually cares too. I have the impression that Keith Mason just wants us plebs to do all this for him.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 04th Apr 2008 (00:35 BST) | Permalink
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