Saturday, April 24, 2010

Happy Birthday Hubble

Today is the 20th birthday (of sorts) of the Hubble Space Telescope. It was launched on 24th April 1990 in the Discovery Space Shuttle, although it wasn't actually deployed until the 25th and it's first light image was released on 20th May 1990. It had some teething problems to start with (a flawed mirror that blurred images meaning that the telescope could not be used at it's maximum resolution), but was specifically designed so that it could be serviced by astronauts and fixes applied. Since the fix it has been one of the most iconic and most importantly scientifically productive instruments ever (a "top 10" of its major discoveries can be seen here, although there are many others). Several servicing missions have gone on to improve its scientific capabilities by adding new detectors, and also greatly extending its lifetime. It also takes a great picture or two (certainly prettier than anything we'll be able to produce by observing gravitational waves), which has helped endear it to the public and make it some famous.

These images have been released to celebrate it's birthday, and hopefully they'll be a lot more to come before it finally closes its eye.

Hubble Captures View of

Thursday, April 22, 2010


In all my time in academia I've never been to Oxbridge - no meetings, conferences, or work-related visits - so I've never had the opportunity to see the dreamy spires of Oxford, or punt down the Cam. This is even more surprising given that I've lived in the South East (reasonably close to both) for the majority of my life, and have had friends go to both universities, and never even went as a tourist (I think on a family holiday or two we may have driven past Oxford, but never stopped there). Well I decided I should rectify this during my current impromptu holiday and yesterday took a trip to Cambridge. From my parents house it's a very easy trip (again, why have I not done it before!) - just a quick drive across to Hatfield (using the parents as a free taxi service) and then on an hour-long train journey direct to Cambridge.

You go to some places and they are quite different from how you'd imagined them. Cambridge definitely isn't one of them - it's exactly as you, or at least I, imagined in. On arriving I wandered round the Fitzwilliam Museum grounds, before going into the first College I came across - Peterhouse. I was very impressed by the college buildings and especially the grounds and beautifully maintained and manicured gardens behind it, but later saw that it was actually rather small and understated compared to some of the others (in fact it's the "oldest and smallest" of the colleges). Soon after I found my way to the Cam, where I saw my first punts although no one was out on them at this time.

For lunch I met up with a friend who works at the Centre for Atmospheric Science and we went to a very nice vegetarian cafe called the Rainbow Cafe (recommended by none other than Gillian McKeith!). Unfortunately, given that it was a lovely day weather-wise, the cafe was in a basement and had no natural light. After lunch we went into the King's College Chapel - staff and their guests can get in free, but otherwise there's a charge. The Chapel is probably one of the most recognisable buildings in Cambridge and I think must have been used in many a TV or film based in Cambridge. It's not what you might think of as a chapel, i.e. a quite small church, as it's massive and probably as big as many cathedrals. Inside there's some great stained glass windows and masonry, in particular the many greyhound and dragons on the coat of arms above each arch.

After King's I decided to do what I normally do at any university and seek out the Astronomy group - in this case the Institute of Astronomy (IoA). This required about a half hour walk out to West Cambridge and unfortunately away from the nicest parts of the city. After about 25 mins of walking I hit the Cavendish Labs, where the Department of Physics and some astrophysics groups live, along with other labs. There were some quite nice new buildings, but in reality the whole place looked and felt like an out of town science park rather than part of a historic university. A short walk further and up across Madingley Road got me to the IoA, which again was a bit underwhelming, but still good to notch off on my list of astronomy department I've been to (last month when I was in LA I had a snoop around the new astrophysics building at Caltech, which I was very impressed by, but I decided against just wandering into the IoA - at least at Caltech I had the excuse that I knew people working in the building, but I no longer know anyone in the IoA).

From the IoA I wandered through the grounds of one of the newest colleges - Churchill - which contained sports pitches, grass and clay tennis courts, and a cricket oval! Heading back towards the centre of town I accidentally found myself going passed the quite funky new (opened in 2005) Maths buildings. I then walked round the outside of two of the largest and most impressive colleges, Trinity and St Johns (although pretty much from the being at the maths buildings I'd been walking past the massive area of Trinity and St John's property and ground). Both these colleges (like most) charge for the public to enter them, and although there were several points were I could probably have got into both unchallenged (if I couldn't pass myself off as an academic then I'd probably look enough like a student) I decided not to risk it. Out the back of these colleges there were some great bridges across the Cam and there were now quite a lot of people out on the punts.

After all this exertion I went for a pint in the Eagle Pub, which I thought I recognised the name of, and was later told by my friend that it's where Crick and Watson announced their discovery of the DNA double helix. I then saw a few more of the colleges (and the Corpus Clock, or Chronophage) and had a wander around the Fen area before meeting up with my friend again for another couple of drinks.

The visit did make me wonder what it would have been like if I'd applied (and got into) Cambridge for my undergraduate degree or PhD. It does look like it would be a fantastic place to study, but I'm not sure if I'd have felt that after three or four years there. It's got a rather unique, fairy-taleish, bygone era, feel to it (as I said before, it's kind of like you imagine it) that you just don't get at other universities. That makes it great to visit, but may become too much after a while. Maybe someday I'll get to spend a bit more time there and find out, or maybe I'll give Oxford a try.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Science case

On Saturday night I got involved in a drunken discussion/argument with another astrophysicist over facilities for future astronomy. As I said it was a drunken argument (from my side at least - the other guy could have been completely sober) and I was probably not too coherent, got slightly tetchy and aggressive (sorry) and took it a bit more seriously than I should have, but I thought I'd go over the main thrust of the disagreement as I vaguely remember it.

In general I thought that funding the two major planned astronomical mega-observatories, the optical/infrared European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the radio observatory the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), was a very good thing for advancing science. Whereas the other guy (TOG) thought that funding these two projects would drain too much money from smaller current telescope facilities, and they would be produce insufficient new science to be able to justify us losing access to these smaller class of telescopes. This is particularly prevalent in light of the recent funding crisis in which the UK astronomy funding agency (STFC) has been squeezing funding for various projects, in particular saying it maybe withdrawing UK membership/funding from things like UKIRT and Gemini. TOG was also worried (I think) that all ESO resources would be put into the E-ELT at the expense of their other facilities.

Science-wise I think TOG was being overly pessimistic. His basic premise was that these new telescopes wouldn't really be opening up any major new discovery space and they'd just allow us to confirm what we already know, but maybe with a bit more precision. A summary of the science case laid out for the E-ELT can be found here, and that for the SKA can be found here (with each chapter available for free on arXiv, e.g. here). These cases do obviously say a lot about what we can do to expand upon current knowledge (it's far easier to write a case based on what we currently know), and in fact I think their ability to do this gives a sufficient jump in sensitivity that the increase in science in these areas is very worthwhile [I'm going to cop out here and not give any specific examples, but see the above links]. However, I also think that there is a major new discovery space that will be opened up and lots of unknown stuff to find out.

The science case wasn't really the main thrust of TOGs argument thought - it was the funding side of things that was the main concern (you might be interested in telescoper's post about different people's ideas about what should be funded, and I think in this comment he show's similar concerns that TOG has). He said (if I remember correctly) he'd love to have access to an E-ELT/SKA for his research, but not necessarily at the cost of not having access to other facilities. No astronomer is going to have access to unlimited time on the E-ELT/SKA, so they'd obviously like to have access to other telescopes and be able to carry on doing productive science and there's a worry that this may not be possible in the future. I again thought that this was a bit too pessimistic, and maybe I'm being a bit naive, but I can't see how such a decimation of smaller facilities would be allowed - smaller class telescopes may have to find more novel ways of funding though (e.g. the LSST and ATA), or by partnership with smaller countries, or groups of universities. Importantly, I think that developing the E-ELT/SKA (via its pathfinders and precursors) is very important for providing technical innovations and pushing boundaries of observational techniques, which will feed back into making smaller class telescopes cheaper [maybe I have this the wrong way round, so someone can correct me] and able to do better science themselves.

I do have a skewed view of this kind of issue though. As a person working on gravitational wave observations we have a few (relatively expensive) detectors that create one data set for use by everyone (or for the moment at least those inside the collaborations that built and maintain the detectors), and don't have to compete for observing time on individual telescopes. I'm mainly making my decision based on my view that these new mega-observatories will produce far more novel science than the current technology is able to (and in small part that they look so cool). I might have different ideas if I felt I'd be unable to get new data myself due to limited observational chances on fewer telescopes, and consequently produce fewer papers and probably therefore have a diminished competitive edge in the academic jobs market. We do have some vested interest in having smaller class telescopes though in that when we see gravitational waves it's important to do optical follow-ups to get the most information about the sources. We're unlikely to be able to get the E-ELT and SKA to go quickly into a follow-up mode, but the smaller class telescopes will be vital.

Anyway, maybe I'm talking rubbish, what are your views?

[Update - on a related note this paper briefly reviews big versus small science/instrumentation in physics and astronomy.]


I taken an executive decision to cancel my trip to Germany. My initial flight, which was scheduled for 11:45 today flying from Heathrow to Amsterdam, was obviously cancelled and the KLM website was having issues when I attempted to re-book another later flight. So I decided the best option was to cut my losses and not travel at all. My trip's not essential, so I think it's best to leave any seats on flights that do make it to people who are in more desperate need than me (see it's a selfless act that I'm doing), which leaves me in the horrible position of having to have a few days of unexpected holiday! Even if I had been able to fly out to Germany I don't think there would have been any guarantee of being able to return on Friday evening, and spending time stuck in a foreign airport is not high on my priorities, so my decision is highly sensible.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Extended stay

Following the hectic activities of last weeks' NAM2010 (actual news from which can be found elsewhere, especially twitter, as I didn't really have the time to blog about it) I have taken a short break. It looks like my break may become a little longer than originally planned though.

On Saturday my plan was to fly from Glasgow to Heathrow for a trip to St Albans to see friends and family for a few days. The flight was obviously a no-go, but I was rather surprised to be able to get a last minute train ticket, and in fact made it down without any bother - I even got a seat on the train after having expected to be squeezed into a space between carriages with tens of other desperate travellers. However, tomorrow I am meant to be flying out to Hannover for a few days of intensive code review at the Albert Einstein Institute. This is looking increasingly unlikely given the current ash cloud status. Up to about an hour ago there had been some optimism with some flights expected to resume tomorrow, but just a few minutes ago there was a new update saying that the Icelandic volcano has started to up its output again. If I can't fly out by Wednesday morning the trip will be pretty pointless, so will just have to be rescheduled for a less volcano-stricken time. I put my current chances of getting to Germany at probably about 5% - I've not done a proper Bayesian analysis on this and have plucked the figure out of thin (ash-free) air, but it feels about right. For me this isn't a major disaster as it means I have a few more days of holiday before going back up to Glasgow, but I do have friends trying to make it back from Europe, and one who's trying to move out to the US, who are quite a bit more inconvenienced than me. Here's hoping they make it to their destinations.

Monday, April 05, 2010

NAM2010 - the countdown

As I briefly mentioned last year we're hosting the National Astronomy Meeting in Glasgow this year. It's now only a week away, so the coming 7 days may be a bit frenetic getting the final things organised. It's looking like it should be a great meeting though.

I've been charged (along with Iain) with organising Posters, Visuals and Banners (you can see a slightly altered version of some of my handy-work here), which has had its moments, but generally hasn't been too arduous a task. One thing I need to do though is produce the research poster that I'm presenting - better get on to that now really.

You can follow the NAM2010 meeting on twitter at @nam2010. I'll probably tweet and maybe post a few (astronomy-based!) blog entries during the week if I'm not too busy.

New spring collection

Over the long Easter weekend I've managed to chalk up doing a few new things (although I'm currently sitting at work, and was also in the office last Friday, so today probably won't involve anything novel).

On Friday night, after almost two years of planning (yes, really, Hazel and me have been discussing going clubbing for that long without actually ever getting round to going out), a few of us went out clubbing. Our impetus was due my friend Hazel having successfully passed her viva the day before and that fact that she'll be moving to San Francisco in a couple of weeks - if we were going to go to a club it was basically now or never. Going out to a club wasn't the new thing, but we did go to a place, the Sub Club, that I'd not been to before in all my 8 years in Glasgow. It wasn't a particularly happening club night and the place was quite quiet, but it was good to get out, have a dance and see somewhere new.

The next day my girlfriend and I both went out and bought bikes. I've not owned my own bike since I got a Red Raleigh Racer (from Halfords obviously!) for my birthday when I was about 8 (therefore it's a tad small for me now), so getting myself one was very exciting. In the intervening time since my RRR, whenever I've cycled I've had to borrow either a parent or siblings bike. This is the bike I got - "...the only true hybrid bike on the market, our Crosstrail™ owns the title of "singletrack-capable commuter bike." For riders who want one bike for all terrain, with the versatility to handle road, mountain and everything in between". I also had to buy all the accessories that go along with bike ownership - helmet, lights, lock, gloves, bike clips. I say we bought bikes, but really we don't actually own or have them yet. We've gone though the Cycle to Work which get us the bikes and equipment tax free, although frustratingly means we have to wait a while until the whole thing gets processed - hopefully this won't take too long.

The final new thing I did was again kind of club related. On Thursday we spotted a poster for the Hinterland Festival - a multi-venue music festival happening in Glasgow on Saturday. We decided to give it a go. Most of the festival was taking place in the Arches, which is another Glasgow venue I'd never been in before, so I was interested to see what it was like. There were bands playing from 6pm, but we were running a bit late and were mainly only interested in seeing the two main bands, British Sea Power and The Mystery Jets, who didn't start until 8.30pm. I was a fun night and I was impressed by the venue. Both bands took a bit of time to really get going in their sets, but picked up a lot towards the end and were a lot of fun - British Sea Power even had a monster turn up to dance. I knew quite a lot of the British Sea Power songs as I have one of their albums, but I'd assumed I must heard more songs by The Mystery Jets when in fact only knew one of them. There were several DJ sets happening after the bands played, which would have been fun to go to, but old age and the effects of several night of my heavy drinking got to us and we had to leave.

I should try and do some new things more often - many of them in the future will probably now involve bike rides to places.