Red Blue Moon

The International Year of Astronomy 2009 is almost over. It has been a busy year full of events the world over. If you've not yet taken part in a global event, you still have chance on New Year's Eve when the Moon will be full.

The Moon is full every moon-th but this will be the second full Moon of this calendar month. This doesn't happen too often and is commonly named a Blue Moon. "Blue" is just the name for it and the Moon won't actually turn that shade. In fact, if anything, the Moon may actually go slightly red tomorrow night because there will also be a partial eclipse visible from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia and bits of Canada. Greatest eclipse will be at 19:22 UT.

Join people around the world taking a Blue Moon Walk, look up, observe the Moon and welcome in 2010.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Wednesday 30th Dec 2009 (13:47 GMT) | Permalink

What the STFC UK?

I've been putting off writing about this for a few days because it has been too painful: the UK is ending the International Year of Astronomy with a war on physics.

In the beginning

The story begins back in February 2007 when I first discovered that UK research councils PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) and CCLRC (Central Laboratory of the Research Councils) were being merged along with the nuclear physics part of EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council). The claim was that these "big physics" areas made use of large facilities so it made sense to put them together. The Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) said that it would "increase the competitiveness and the scientific and economic impact of UK science by funding the best research within its grant-giving remit". At the time the DTI also assured everyone that the funding would remain equal to the sum of the parts. There were concerns in the community that smaller research areas would lose out to huge projects and I was also concerned about its continued commitment to explaining its science through education and engagement.

The new research council - the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) - was brought into being on April 1st 2007. I remember being in a session at the National Astronomy Meeting 2007 where concerns were voiced about this new body. There was a worry that the new council did not contain the word "Research" in its title unlike the three bodies from which its constituent parts were taken. As it turned out, these concerns were not as foolish as they may have seemed.

The cracks begin to appear

In November 2007 we heard that STFC had announced the UK's withdrawal from the Gemini telescopes to save £4 million per year. This was a shock announcment to the entire astronomical community and gave the first hints of the complete and utter mess that STFC's finances were in. It was soon pointed out that leaving our contract with Gemini early would incur a financial penalty so STFC managed to incite international outrage at our nation's behaviour and not actually do anything to help the financial problems.

As we moved into December 2007 it became clearer that the problem was much bigger than £4 million per year. As was discussed on the Today Programme by (then Dr) Brian Cox, STFC seemed to be missing as much as £80 million. This was around 12% of their annual budget of £678 million. The reason for the short fall has never been fully clear or even admitted. Government could rightly claim that they had increased "science" spending in their 10 years of office and had increased STFC's budget for the 3 years of the Comprehensive Spending Review period starting in 2007. Although true, several other factors meant that in reality STFC had less money to fund what it was already funding. The factors included (but were not limited to): inflation; increasing costs of subscriptions to international facilities such as ESA, CERN and ESO; exchange rate fluctuations of those subscriptions; spending overruns on projects such as Diamond (mostly denied by STFC); and a mysterious thing called full-economic costing which had been imposed by the Treasury.

The Science Minister at the time (Ian Pearson MP) and his boss - the head of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS which later became BIS) - both claimed that there was no problem and that they'd increased STFC's budget. STFC also claimed that everything was fine while also preparing the physics community for cuts of 10-25%. We all wondered why such large cuts were required if everything was fine.

What level of excellence do we cut?

We went into 2008 feeling deeply depressed about the impending doom. An STFC representative told MPs that astronomers and particle physicists should stop complaining and perhaps retrain as stockbrokers. The year was spent having what seemed like endless reviews to rank and re-rank the entire research programme. I should point out that there was very little "flab" in the programme and everything that was funded had previously been ranked as excellent.

STFC borrowed some money from their own future (the 2010-2011 budget) to plug some of the holes temporarily. In 2008-9 STFC axed projects such as CLOVER that had almost been built and were soon to start taking data. At Jodrell Bank, STFC negotiated "continued" funding of e-MERLIN which actually meant that they would reduce the funding over the following 2 years so that there would be no more funding from 2011 onwards. I suspect that the rather quiet sale of protected radio astronomy band Channel 38 (606 - 614 MHz) may have helped in this deal as Ofcom were looking for spectrum real-estate in time for the Olympics in 2012. STFC made a small saving and Ofcom were probably laughing all the way to the bank.

The day of doom

On Wednesday this week, we finally reached the point when the full level of the cuts were announced and the borrowed money from the future had to be paid back. Peter Coles does an excellent job of describing the day that has caused even more widespread depression amongst physicists around the UK. There are significant cuts across the board. Many projects have been cut entirely and the list of "saved" projects includes many that will have no funding from 2011/2 onwards. Nuclear physics has been savaged with perhaps 50% cuts. It is claimed that the outreach budget will continue but it isn't clear if this is at the greatly reduced 2009 rate or level of previous years. The cuts would have been worse if other research councils hadn't "donated" £14 million although this does come with some strings; a "refocussing" of STFC's priority on to the life sciences rather than astronomy, particle and nuclear physics.

This wanton destruction of physics is even more confusing when the amounts are small, the physics has been consistently classed as excellent, and the financial problems seem due to an accounting blunder or funding council incompetance rather than because of inefficient science projects. The comparison with the very different way the banking system has been treated is particularly stark.

To make the situation even more painful, the spokesmen for STFC have consistently framed their statements in language that makes it look as though there is no problem ("There has been no reduction in support" - Keith Mason) or even as if things are looking good. The big list of cuts was described as "re-prioritisation" during "a short term blip" (Keith Mason). They claimed that scientists themselves chose what to cut giving the implication that we were merely removing the chaff rather than being told to make a choice of which of your children will be allowed to live. There has also been the claim that this exercise merely removed old, outdated experiments that have served their time. While true for some things, they cut plenty of experiments which hadn't even started working yet but had had money invested to build them. Such a waste.

The depression doesn't end. Despite what the STFC CEO might try to claim, this week's announcement mostly pre-dates the global economic crisis. The cuts due to that crisis (the upcoming £600 million reduction in spending on universities and research) means that the future is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

A generation will be lost

As Dame Jocelyn Bell rightly points out, the "greatest shame" of this announcement is the 25% reduction in studentships and fellowships. This cut hits young scientists specifically. This seems particularly unfair as younger researchers are not well represented amongst the powers that be who all have very safe jobs and very reasonable salaries. Our own funding council has told my generation that we aren't valued and that we should leave the country if we want to continue in the field we are passionate about. This is already happening. Several of my friends and colleagues have lost their funding and/or moved overseas in the past couple of years. Countries such as Australia and the Netherlands seem much more enlightened and attractive than the UK right now.

Does it matter?

In economic times like these, should scientists be complaining or should they be pretending that STFC are doing a great job as Keith Mason and friends would like us to? It is true that the public sector is to face cuts and it can be difficult to justify why scientific researchers shouldn't be part of this. At the same time, scientific research makes vital contributions to our society and underpins a rather large fraction of the economy. All this despite the surprisingly small fraction of our GDP that we spend on it.

At the same time as physics will be devasted for want of around £100 million, a new part of the public sector is demanding an extra £1500 million in bonuses as a reward for almost destroying our entire economy.


Although my particular funding is "safe" (although it may get a 10-15% cut anyway) I'm angry that my friends have lost their jobs. I'm angry that my passions have been smashed into pieces by an indifferent funding agency. I'm angry that I spend much of my time telling people about great STFC funded science only for the same body to axe it. I'm angry at STFC's constant double-speak. I'm angry at the Government for standing by and watching this mess. I can't help but feel that the Government may have been hoping for this outcome all along. I'm angry that Keith Mason could very well be "rewarded" for all this by being made head of the future UK space agency.

What's next?

The current Science Minister Lord Drayson now admits that having research budgets compete ("tensioned") against large fixed facility costs may not be such a good idea. He implies that STFC may be changed at some point in 2010. Whilst life without STFC might sound great, it isn't that simple. Paul Crowther rightly says that this option isn't without problems. Do we really want to repeat what happened last time by entering the next CSR with new agencies that can't (or won't) fight their case?

We need the STFC Executive to change or at least take equivalent cuts in their own salaries to show solidarity. We need Government to step in an show leadership by fixing the financial mess.

Right now though, I need some small glimmer of hope to keep me going. Can anyone provide some? Please?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 20th Dec 2009 (15:12 GMT) | Permalink

Geminids 2009

Tonight I've been watching the Geminid meteor shower preview: the peak isn't until about 5am GMT on Monday morning. Even so, tonight I've seen 5 Geminids and 1 sporadic in the hour or two that I sat on my balcony. Not bad for the middle of Manchester.

Meteor spotting is not difficult and is best done without a telescope or binoculars. All you need is a reclining chair, clear skies and patience. Actually, on a clear night at this time of year it gets quite cold up here in the north so I also made sure that I was wrapped up warm with extra socks, gloves, a scarf, a hot water bottle and a hat. Cups of tea are also welcome.

If it is cloudy where you are there are other ways to enjoy the Geminids. You can watch the growing image archive (created by @scibuff), follow the #MeteorWatch conversation or even listen to live radio echoes.

Orion in the early hours of 13th December 2009 as seen from my balcony. I didn't have a tripod and I was shivering so apologies for the shake. CREDIT: Stuart

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 13th Dec 2009 (04:18 GMT) | Permalink


Although many other places have already covered Chromoscope in the past week, I thought I'd should write something too. Why? Well, I wrote the code behind it. I was helped by Rob Simpson and Chris North who sourced images and created a blog to go with it.

We created Chromoscope for the Royal Society Summer Exhibition as a way to illustrate why astronomers observe the Universe at different wavelengths. We weren't guaranteed an internet connection so we needed something that could run on a standalone laptop. Google Maps seemed to want to talk to the Googleplex and I seemed to be struggling to get OpenLayers to work as I wanted so I thought I'd try to make my own "slippy map". It turns out that you don't need legions of developers.

Making it has been both interesting and fun. As a result I now know my way around the sky in Galactic coordinates much better than before. Even though I've seen plenty of sky surveys at different wavelengths, this is the first time I've been able to fade nicely between them too. It has been great to spot bubbles of Hydrogen-alpha emitting regions surrounded by far-infrared emitting dust (change the wavelength to see what I mean) or see gaps in the X-ray survey data.

We officially launched Chromoscope at .Astronomy last Thurday after a few months of user testing from some nice people on Twitter. Since then nearly 100,000 people have been to look at it. This caused the servers to grind to a halt on Sunday/Monday and I had to get an Amazon S3 account (with helpful advice from Arfon) to help cope with the traffic. In the past 30 hours there have been almost 5 million image requests!

Chromoscope certainly isn't perfect and it doesn't go to the depth (or have the bells and whistles) of the excellent WorldWideTelescope or Wikisky. What it does do is fade between wavelengths and have the ability to be downloaded for places without an internet connection. It has also helped a significant number of people realise that there is lots to see beyond the visible.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Thursday 10th Dec 2009 (23:43 GMT) | Permalink

.Astronomy 2009

CREDIT: Carolina Ödman
For the past week I've been at .Astronomy in Leiden, Netherlands.

For those that don't know, .Astronomy was created by Rob Simpson to provide a conference to bring together astronomy with internet-based technologies. The first .Astronomy was hosted in Cardiff and it went so well that Sarah Kendrew and Carolina Ödman suggested that a second be held in Leiden. The planning for .Astronomy 2 started many months ago and I'm glad to say that all the emails and telecons were well worth it.

Morning talks have covered topics ranging from Sixty Symbols to Galaxy Zoo, Sky Map and the Virtual Observatory. The afternoons saw 101 sessions covering things such as Google Maps, podcasting and LEGO as well as discussions about everything from open science, to new citizen science projects and astronomy in the developing world. Being a networked conference, the talks were streamed and one was even given direct from the speaker's bed! Is that a first for an astronomy conference?

In the middle of the week we had a bit of an experiment with Wednesday kept free for those attending to think up new ideas, create websites and develop widgets. This "hack day" worked very well and it was amazing to see an idea dreamt up in the pub the night before get fleshed out, have a website created and a database back-end sorted out all in a day. In fact it was the creativity, enthusiasm, range of skills and "let's just make it" attitude that made the week so enjoyable for me.

Almost everything I saw could be considered a highlight but I'd like to say that I was particularly impressed by the excellent WWT from Jonathan Fay (Microsoft Research). Jonathan has put a lot of effort into WWT and I overheard several Mac users saying that having seen it they had considered installing Windows. Thankfully such drastic measures weren't necessary as WWT can now run in a web browser using the SilverLight plugin (Windows and Mac) and will soon be available on Linux via the MoonLight plugin. As Rob said, it was impressive to be able to load a FITS file into WWT and start doing work with it.

During the week we also managed to launch a new tool that I've helped to develop over the past few months but more on that in the next post.

Thanks to all the brilliant people that attended .Astronomy 2009 for making it a thoroughly fun week.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 07th Dec 2009 (00:50 GMT) | Permalink
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