It’s a good time to start writing again..

as it’s been a busy few months on the SPIRE side. Not much free time alas to write blog entries.

I will however have a few in the next few days – and quite timely, given the results of the Spending Review will be publish imminently. Let’s put it this way, the scientific capacity of the UK will be decimated by this, and quite frankly, may never recover.

More of which anon.

Oooh, a busy few weeks…

… both just gone and ahead of me.

Just back from a quite frankly crazy two weeks of travel – I spent a few days in Padova, Italy for a couple of Herschel meetings – the first being for the SPIRE consortium, the other for the SAG1 team. Padova is an absolutely beautiful city, and the observatory there was home to Galileo when he first turned a telescope to the skies 400 years ago. Flying BA didn’t actually suck, for once – and I even flew back to Gatwick rather than Heathrow from Venice, which was a godsend. Pity I didn’t have time to explore both Padova and Venice – that’s the bane of being an astronomer – you get to go to nice places, but you’re working and never see anything, so you may as well be in Brixton for all intents.

I also managed to cram in a week of vacation time back in Ireland with the family (the kids turned 3 and 1) – unfortunately with kids, you’re on the go all the time, and thus feel utterly knackered when you get home as a result. (The 14 hours of travel via train and ferry didn’t help – flying with a 3 yr old and a 1 yr old simply isn’t on). So today, I’m going to enjoy the sun and the football with a very nice cold bottle of beer – and yes, I’m supporting Germany, but really only to annoy my very unpleasant neighbour on one side. The neighbour on the other is not only Scottish (and extremely nice), but also a former professional footballer for Charlton, so he’ll be joining me in my support for Deutschland 😉 ).

In astronomy news, I’m chuffed to have gotten observing time on Gemini South again – so preparing my Phase II submission for this, plus work for SPIRE, plus working on proposals for the Open Time call for Herschel observing programs will mean an extremely long and hard week ahead – not helped by the hot, sunny weather here in London or the lack of air conditioning in my office….

Quelle suprise. A blog post on the World Cup…

This is pretty sweet right now – my family are out of the country, and I’m sitting in front of the TV watching England v the USA right now (and am failing to get behind my country of residence, mostly due to ITV’s poor, hamfisted coverage). I have to admit though, it’s great to be in a country that gets excited at World Cup time – flags everywhere, people going around in England shirts etc. – something that was conspicuously absent whilst living in the USA last time round. It’s not that the Americans weren’t interested, it’s just that football is still somewhat of a niche sport, spectator-wise in the USA – thankfully though, the DC area was a pretty decent spot to meet up with other fans to watch games at Irish bars (even if it meant walking into a pub at 8 in the morning to do so). Still, it’s to be somewhere that’s immersed in the whole thing – until England get knocked out of course.

As you might expect, I’m a football nut. So much so, that if I’d not decided to go down the science route, my career choice would have been that of a football journalist – Brian Glanville was always a favourite read of mine, and World Soccer was a must-buy every month. This is the eighth World Cup I’ve watched – 1982 was my first, and thus still have fond memories of that great Brazil side of Socrates and co, and the ill-fated French side that were cheated out of a final appearance by Harald Schumacher’s GBH on Patrick Battison. Still have very pleasant memories of going out to play football with friends straight after and re-enact what we’d just watch – I was always Karl-Heinz Rumminegge for some reason.

But it wasn’t until Euro 88 and watching that glorious Dutch side (and Marco van Basten’s classic in the final) that I became an obsessive – I watched literally ever game I could, and drove my family nuts in the process as I’d taken over the TV completely. Given the opportunity today, I’d do the same – but I fear my wife too much to try.

So what am I looking forward to this time round? Good football, good craic and for Holland to win – the Total Football teams of Cruyff, van Basten and Bergkamp were always a joy to watch but always fell short. Maybe this time round – and they certainly have the midfield and front line to go one step further this time…..

I’m off to Italy for a Herschel meeting tomorrow, so I expect the SPIRE team will make some opportunity to watch games in a very nice social setting. With plenty of nice wine, hopefully.

Happy birthday Herschel!

Happy Birthday

It’s amazing to think it, but today, May 14th, is the first anniversary of the launch of Herschel – and its been quite a year, to say the least.

It doesn’t seem like 12 months – this time last year (literally, as I write this), I was sitting in a large lecture theatre at the Rutherford Appleton Lab in Oxfordshire with about 200 others (a mix of people working on Herschel and their guests) waiting for launch time to approach. To say I was on tenderhooks would be an understatement – if things went awry, I was out of a job (which happened to people after the lost of CLUSTER in 1996), something which would be pretty disastrous career wise, but also given the need to support my soon to expand young family. It wasn’t a pleasant thought.

The ride uphill on that Ariane was the 26 longest minutes of my life, even more so when the telemetry suddenly stopped. Luckily, it was due simply to the change over of tracking stations, so a major heart attack/numbness/crying was averted. Once Herschel separated from the Ariane and Planck, it was finally time to relax. And get very, very drunk. Needless to say, a lot of alcohol was consumed that night, including the very fine ‘Herschel’ rioja. A fantastic day and a fantastic evening.

The next year was amazing, but hard work – we needed to get the telescope (and our instrument, SPIRE) up and running and properly calibrated so as to produce scientifically useful data for our observers. The problems with HIFI certainly ramped up the pressure – suddenly, we had all this extra time to observe with, so the pace for a few months afterwards was unrelenting as we were putting together observations, looking at the results and tweaking the telescope as a result to improve the next batch, all under a very tight schedule.

It was a pretty fantastic feeling, though, once the first regular science (versus engineering/calibrations) observations were performed in October – I guess it’s a bit like the pride of seeing your kids off to school for the first time. Once HIFI came back online in the new year, we were sailing. Herschel was working beautifully.

The last few months have been equally been hectic – as the science data has flooded in, the Herschel research consortia have been very busy processing/analysing their data and writing papers. The sheer volume of stunning new results at ESLAB 2010 last week is a testament to the sterling work of the Herschel instrument teams and the research consortia – Herschel and its individual instruments are engineering marvels, and the science coming out is amazing. Well done everyone, the kudos are well deserved.

There’s a swarm of papers on the astro-ph archive in the last few days (and yours truly is a co-author on quite a few, and first author on one), all top-notch stuff – all will be published in the Astronomy & Astronomy Herschel special edition in the next couple of months, but keep an eye out for press releases to accompany them as well. (If you want to look on the astro-ph archive (which is free), follow this link.

It’s been a fantastic year (and capped by the birth of my daughter, now nearly a year old) – thanks everyone, it’s been an absolute pleasure to work on Herschel. Here’s to quite a few more birthday anniversary celebrations for this remarkable observatory. Now, if I could only find my camera…. there’s a lot of incriminating photos from this time last year….

(Oh, and let’s not forget fond birthday wishes to our friends at Planck!)

Back home…

soggy London

…. in soggy London, and I have to admit, I’m rather zonked. ESLAB was tremendous fun, full of great talks and was fantastic to meet up with colleagues across the Herschel project both scientifically and socially (and boy, do astronomers know how to knock back the booze…..). It’s such an intense week though – early starts plus around 12 talks a day – that basically it’s just overload central by the end of the week. As a consequence, it was nice to head home – even to screaming, hyperactive almost 3 and almost 1 year old kids and a rather frazzled wife.

Thalys Hi-Speed train

A number of travel firsts for me – first trip on Eurostar, and first time in Belgium and Holland. Very impressed with Eurostar, amazingly quick to Brussels from St. Pancras. Not quite so impressed with the Belgian railway system (rather slow, and our train to Rotterdam noticeably sped up once we crossed the border into Holland), as our train back to Brussels from Rotterdam was cancelled – luckily as we had the Eurostar connection to make, we were bumped up to the Thalys high speed train to Brussels Midi, and made our connection just in time. Very much like the Thalys trains – definitely will use them again. Rather a step up in class from First Great Western, and everyone’s favourite, Irish Rail…..

An enjoyable, yet tiring, few days – time to sit on my backside for the weekend before more (UK based) train journeys next week… it’ll give me time to digest the UK election results/fallout, the football I’ve missed (and will watch) and the mad news that Ireland will be contributing $1.3 billion to the Greek bailout. Did we find it behind the sofa?

A flood of results from Herschel….

Herschel image of RCW 120

I’m currently sitting in the ESA ESLAB conference in Noordwijk, Holland, listening to a barrage of new results from Herschel. It’s been an extraordinarily busy few months for us all, finally sitting down with our first science-quality datasets from the various instruments on Herschel, and reducing them/analysing the results, and finally, writing the first papers.

Most of us have had their Science Demonstration papers accepted by the ‘Astronomy & Astrophysics’ journal – generally, the responsible space agency (ESA in this case) works with one of the professional astronomy journals to publish short papers in a ‘special edition’ of the journal, which is given over entirely to those results. The fruit of those labours are being presented at Noordwijk this week – in my case, my work on the Dwarf Galaxy Survey was quite pleasantly namechecked and shown by the project’s PI, so I was quite understandably chuffed. For those of us working on the instrument teams, the last few years of suppressing our own scientific output to get the instruments working has been well worth it – the bonus is that we get to be part of large consortia, doing mind-blowing, cutting edge science as a result.

One of the nice bonuses of conferences is the social aspects – dinner and trips to the pub, after long, long days in the conference hall, hits the spot quite nicely! Good people, good company, and great science – not a bad combination, at all.

Only one last day left for the ESLAB conference – to follow it, keep an eye on the Herschel mission blog (which I contribute to), or on Twitter, using the #eslab2010 tag.

(I was going to blog on the interesting post regarding scientists and data access to the community at large at the Galaxy Map blog, but Dave Clements already did a good job in responding. It’s a worthwhile discussion – check it out.

Surveying the wreckage.. and other bits

It’s been quite a week.

The UK physics community is still reeling from the massive slashing of funding to the STFC. Funding for some major projects has been discontinued (including the UK contribution to the Gemini Telescopes, a particular favourite of mine – this had been expected, given the extremely clumsy attempted withdrawal 2 years ago), while funding for others has been reduced. No further UK support for missions such as XMM (whom STFC had lobbied with ESA to keep operating), Venus Express and SOHO.

The *worst* bit though is the 25% reduction in funding for fellowships and Ph.D. studentships – in essence, it makes life extremely tough for a) those of us currently in postdoc positions who will be looking for a more permanent position within the next couple of years and b) new students wishing to move into a career in physics. Scenario a) affects me the most – at the moment, my position is ESA funded – however, if I wish to stay where I am (or stay within the UK), I need STFC funding. Fellowships, already thin on the ground, will become nigh on impossible to get as a result of this decision.

Of course, I’m not the only person affected by this – many other postdocs will be in the same boat, and the number of new Ph.D. students will be badly affected. Indeed, the cumulative effect is to basically nobble the career prospects for many at the lower rungs of physics academia in the UK for the next decade or so. No positions to move into, no funds for projects either. Given this, many of us will be reviewing our career options over the next while – some will move overseas to research positions in Europe, the US and elsewhere, and some will leave academia completely. As for myself, with a young family, moving beyond the UK is a non-starter….. so a lot of reflection lies ahead.

Herschel (which as you may know, is the ESA program I work on) had a very successful First Results workshop in Madrid at the end of last week. Principal investigators from the Key Projects presented the preliminary first results from their projects – the results of which you’ll see shortly in a torrent of press releases. Some of the images have already been released by ESA – my favourite has to be the gorgeous SPIRE/PACS composite image of the Eagle nebula.


The project I work on – the dwarf galaxy survey – also had its results presented in Madrid by our PI. But our stuff isn’t as pretty, so no ESA press release! 😉 All of us are furiously working on papers to be published in a special edition of ‘Astronomy & Astrophysics’ in the summer of 2010 – fun and busy times lie ahead. Herschel is a *superb* instrument, and thanks to the dedication of a *lot* of people, will continue to churn out superb results for the remainder of the mission. Cheers to all my colleagues across ESA and our international partners – it’s been a fantastic year, and fingers crossed for an equally good 2010. Especially as HIFI will begin operations again!

Finally…. I’m off for two weeks of much need R&R with my family. Have a wonderful Christmas and a very enjoyable New Year, and hopefully Santa will be in generous mood to you 😉

I’m a *science warrior*

No, I’m not mutating into that crazy “Christian” lady from Trading Spouses. At least not yet.

I’m watching with interest the lead up to the Copenhagen climate summit next month – and in particular, the full on assault by those with vested interests on the science of climate change. The recent theft of emails – and very selective publishing of email conversations between climate scientists at the University of East Anglia – is the first serious attempt at the discrediting of climate science. And sadly, a very effective one – it has been extremely disheartening to see climate science getting a pummelling, especially in media outlets which would be less than favourable to acceptance that climate change is ongoing.

Flicking across the TV tonight, I came across a news report on Russia Today – the Kremlin’s foreign mouthpiece these days – in which they attempted to but the boot in on climate science, and on man-made global warming. When you remember that Russia is a major producer of oil and gas – and something its economy is highly dependent on – you can see where this ‘editorial guidance’ is coming from.

Strong, vested interests will try to nobble attempts at mitigating the effects of climate change by reducing carbon emissions – it is up to us, as scientists, to provide the public with the unvarnished truth on climate change, in order to highlight how seriously fucked we really are.

I’m sick of this – it is time to stand up to the vested interests (and to those “scientists” in the pay of those vested interests). Are you up for the fight?

Anti-global warming propaganda from the CEI

Dunsink Observatory – a crying shame

It’s been a while, I must admit – life has been a tad busy with work on Herschel, with performance verification pretty much done (apart from one instrument) and science demonstration kicking off. It’s been pretty much non-stop since August, with me travelling quite a bit up and down to Oxfordshire for the majority of the week. So, unsurprisingly, not a lot of time has been free to update the blog, sadly.

For the last week, I’ve actually had some time off – I’m currently in Ireland on a bit of a busmans holiday. I came over to give a talk to the Irish Astronomical Society on Herschel last Monday night – we got a crowd of 25 or so up to Dunsink Observatory for the talk, and I think it went pretty well. It was odd being back at Dunsink, as I’d spent 18 months as a post-doc earlier in my career and had not been back in the 5+ years since.


The observatory is pretty much abandoned now – the internal politics and restructuring within the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies led to the academics moving into the Dublin city centre, leaving the Observatory empty. Now Irish science isn’t in the healthiest of states – astronomy in particular – but to leave a crown jewel like the Dunsink site to rot is unforgivable. The history of the site (luminaries such as Hamilton and Schrodinger worked there) plus the wonderful historical instruments (a 12″ Grubb refractor in particular) make it a *prime* site for a superb outreach facility for Irish astronomy and science in general. Apart from the sterling efforts of the IAS, the opportunities for using the site for science outreach are being sadly ignored by an increasingly short-sighted parent body and penny-pinching Government department – this sort of thing would *not* happen elsewhere in Europe.

Grubb Refractor

Instead, it is left there to rot. And sadly, that’s the way things happen in Ireland. It’ll be only when the Dunsink site is beyond saving that the powers that be will get up off their arses…. and then it’ll be too late.

Wildfires affect Mt. Wilson and Pasadena…

The huge southern California wildfires are rather too close to the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory (home to the Hooker 100″ telescope (formerly the largest telescope in the world) and founded by one of the giants of 20th century astronomy, George Hale) and the nearby city of Pasadena, home to JPL and Caltech.

Been there quite a few times in a professional capacity, and it’s a beautiful part of the world – the mountains rise up just north of Pasadena city, and it’s a stunning view (note to me: must dig out photos). As you might expect, it gets bloody hot down in southern CA and with a long drought, wildfires are common in the hills.

Latest updates at: the Mt. Wilson webpage
Stay safe all.