Saturday, January 23, 2010

Meanwhile, back at the ranch...

Jules used to be an astronomer. Thankfully, no more. Not just because of the horror stories of being driven up and down the mountain (where the telescope was sited) in the dark on a narrow twisting road by a drunk old lecher who had just downed a bottle of wine and who kept on pestering her to let him eat breakfast off her stomach...

But more importantly (perhaps) because The Powers That Be have just decided to abandon every telescope in the northern hemisphere that UK scientists used to have access to (see Physics Today, Science):

For astronomers, the discouraging headline is that STFC will withdraw U.K. support from a number of international projects in 2012, including the Gemini Telescopes, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, the Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory, and the U.K. Infra-red Telescope. After that date, U.K. astronomers will no longer have access to a major observatory in the northern hemisphere.

Presumably they have run out of 54-year-olds to give early retirement to.

Funny how when the bankers (collective noun: wunch) throw billions down a black hole, they are immediately bailed out despite supposedly being in the private sector, but when some bureaucrats at the head of a research council mislay a few million, the result is the closure of whole fields of science. As good old Flash Gordon said, "the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future." Err...hang on...

Oh well, I suppose digital cameras are pretty good these days, the scientists can just get long lenses. Nuclear physics and satellite missions are also slashed though, and may be harder to replace with off-the-shelf consumer goods. STFC is forthwith to be known as the "Shut The Facilities Council".


crf said...

I don't think it is so terrible to lose northern hemisphere optical telescopes. One hemisphere is as good as the other.

But JCMT is unique and important.

Long term strategies are in order.

Budget cutting or science is the stupidest garbage based on economic pseudo-science. It guarantees a stupider future than would otherwise be the case in exchange for the magical tonic of less debt.

Challenge to economists: prove otherwise.

James Annan said...

Yeah, I guess we should just put all the argo floats and tethered buoys in one hemisphere too, after all one half of the ocean is as good as another. We could save a bundle on land measurements too.

Good luck getting the funding to send a phd student to the southern hemisphere for observing experience though...but they are cutting studentships too, so that problem will sort itself out.

crf said...

Actually, one half of the ocean isn't as good as the other ... I disagree. Clearly the south is different from the north in many oceanic characteristics.

But, for its astronomical characteristics, there isn't anything to suggest that the northern part of the sky is different from the southern. (For ground-based problems where you'd like to compare N and S portions of the universe, or study a particular object, future british astronomers can still partner with Americans and Canadians and French, who currently maintain northern optical scopes.) Comparing the study of earth's oceans to the study of the universe is a wholy inapt analogy.

Astronomical costs are equivalent between the south and north. You'll see that travel is a small part of the budget compared to instrument development and salaries. And already new British scientists are sent on long plane trips to work in Chile, rather than on apparently much cheaper long plane trips to Hawaii and, perhaps, the Canary Islands. Chile is the THE BEST place for ground based optical astronomy in the world. Hawaii is a close second, but there is NO ROOM for more telescopes on Mauna Kea's summit. TMT (if it is built) will likely be the last large telescope built there: and that decision was partly decided by considerations other than astronomical. The ELT will likely be somewhere in the south. Even the next generation radio and microwave telescopes are likely to sited in Australia and perhaps South Africa (the SKA project). The British, along with every other nation participating in world class astronomy, will always have to fly to the south.

James Annan said...

While you may be right about travel itself, my ex-astronomer wife informs me that the views from the hemispheres are quite different in astronomical terms (looking towards vs away from the galaxy, or some such). I think ocean eddies are the same (except for direction of rotation) though :-)

The British, along with every other nation participating in world class astronomy, will always have to fly to the south.

Well that will certainly be true if they shut all the NH telescopes!

RW said...

If you're only interested in the largest-scale structures in the universe, and if the cosmological principle is true, then one hemisphere is indeed as good as the other. If you're interested in anything else, then quitting one hemisphere is like poking one of your eyes out. Chile certainly is a great place to do astronomy - I was there doing just that only a few weeks ago - but it's rubbish if you wanted to study the Cat's Eye Nebula, or the famous starburst galaxy M82, or say Comet Hale-Bopp when it was near perihelion, or any number of other objects.

This decision is catastrophic for UK astronomy. It will force large numbers of UK astronomers to either quit the field or emigrate. The most unpleasant thing is that a large part of the catastrophe has come not from real financial shortage but incompetence and mismanagement. The funding council is under inept leadership, and that leadership is under inept government oversight, and between them they have managed to squander in the space of two years a strong position which had been built up over two decades.

I may emigrate. Then again, I may consider going into climate science...

jules said...

Actually I think we could do with a good deal more ocean observations in the south. With the Europeans on one side and the Americans on the other the North Atlantic is way more observed than anywhere else - and yet modellers keep discovering that the southern hemisphere is v. important for getting any of it right.

As for the Tscopes, I am very sad as my irrelevant little phd was based on data I collected at one of the Tscopes that the UK is pulling out of. Lechery aside, it was so much fun...such wonderful avocados. The other memorable part was when my supervisor took me out onto the roof of the telescope to actually look at the night sky. That was the first time I ever really saw it clearly.

James Annan said...


Why not do both, like we did :-)

I haven't got any inside info but I certainly got the impression it was mostly a bureaucrat cock-up - commiserations. I'm not sure that climate science has a rosy future though, rationally I'd have to say that the gravy train is heading for the buffers (we know the answers well enough for political purposes, and also know that more detailed knowledge will only come slowly) but the IPCC may be enough of a juggernaut that it keeps its momentum for another decade or several. Turkeys aren't famed for voting for Christmas :-)