Disturbing the Universe

David L Clements, science and science fiction

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Drive by posting: 2 Cultures, Networking and Talking to the Press

You know how it is. Ideas for possibly lengthy posts come along, but the pile of exam papers to be marked doesn’t get smaller by itself, you have interesting research to do, and you want to push ahead with revisions of the Work In Progress. So the ideas falter and never get expanded or baked to the length they might deserve.

A few of these have cropped up recently and, in the absence of energy to expand them, I’ll just add them here in short form for your delectation.

  • Last week, during a discussion on Twitter, Damien G Walter, who writes about SF for the Guardian among other things, made a comment along the lines of ‘as someone trained in both the arts and sciences, I feel sorry for those trained in only one’. I agree with that, but I’d go one further. In most cases I feel more sorry for the ‘arts’ people not trained in the sciences, than for those like myself forced to drop arts subjects at 16 by the English educational system. The reason I say this is because you can, to some extent at least, learn the missing bits of the arts in your own time. Possible evidence I’ve had some short stories published, something your average english student probably doesn’t even manage. However, while teaching yourself a science on your own time is certainly possible, it’s a lot harder than developing your arts education on your own. Some knowledge of science, and experience of the scientific way of thinking, I think adds great depth to your appreciation of the world around you.
  • One thing that surprised me about the various appreciations of Iain Bank’s life and work over the last weeks and months was the number of people saying they had met their husbands or wives through his writing. I didn’t really understand this at the time, but today, thanks to a long post by a friend on a different social media site, I now know how at least some of that worked, through people meeting other Banks fans via the Culture mailing list. This got me to thinking how social media in all its forms is changing the way we interact. In past decades, meeting new people wasn’t that easy. Too often one would be constrained by geography, by links within existing social groups, or by other circumstances. Meeting people genuinely new to you would be difficult. Now, all that could be just a click away through a list dedicated to some common interest, like the writings of a favourite author. Is this something fundamentally different? If I knew more about network theory I might be trying to work this out.
  • Finally, a rather worrying report on BBC news today about how scientists working for government agencies in the UK feel, or are told, that they shouldn’t be talking to the media. This is the kind of gagging that has brought strong criticism of the Canadian government, which brought in strict controls on what and how its scientists can and can’t say to the media. The British way is rather different from the Canadian approach. Rather than an explicit gag, we have the dim and nebulous threat of the Official Secrets Act to hang over people. This can lead to insidious self censorship when you don’t know what you can or can’t say to the press. The safe thing to do, of course, is just to say nothing. I’m glad university scientists in the UK are rather freer to talk to the media, at least at the moment. But what I’ve heard about signatures on formal ‘non-disclosure agreements’ being required of scientists working on some future ESA missions is rather worrying, These would seem to go beyond things like the Planck (lack of) communication policy to a whole new level of interference with academic freedom. These are not developments that should be encouraged.

So there it is, a drive by posting.

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Planck: Release Details

No – not the content of the release, that’s still embargoed, but how you can watch the press conference yourself…

This is what I’ve been told are the arrangements for Planck Day, Thursday 21 March:

There is an ESA Press Conference in Paris from 9am UK time, with talks from the ESA Director General and George Efstathiou. There will be a simultaneous press event at the RAS here in London which will stream the Paris talks, and will be followed by a panel discussion and Q&A featuring Andrew Jaffe (Imperial), Mark Ashdown (Cambrdige), Richard Battye (Manchester), Anthony Challinor (Cambridge), Jo Dunkley (Oxford), Steve Gratton (Cambridge), Paul Shellard (Cambridge) and Locke Spencer (Cardiff).

There will also be an afternoon session in Paris with more technical talks.

Both morning and afternoon Paris talks will all be streamed at http://www.esa.int.

Papers will be up on the ESA site at about noon Thursday, and on astro-ph Friday morning.

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Planck: The Teaser Trailer

As you all already know (and if you don’t you’ve not been paying attention to this blog!), the first Planck cosmology results are coming out on 21st March.

Just to make sure absolutely everybody knows this is going to happen, ESA have produced a trailer. Go and watch it now…

I think this is the first time there’s been a teaser trailer for a set of scientific results. I don’t think even the LHC did that.

And as for the cod 70s soundtrack? Sounds more appropriate for a Shaft movie to me. The possibilities for remixes are endless…

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M31 with Herschel: Andromeda’s Dust in Full colour

Great to see that today’s Astronomy Picture of the Day shows Herschel’s image of the Andromeda Galaxy, M31. Since Herschel operates in the far infrared, what you see in this image is not stars, but dust in M31’s interstellar medium warmed by starlight. The colours represent temperature, so bluer is hotter and redder is colder.


The data that went into that image comes, in part, from the SPIRE consortium, which I’m part of. I’ve even worked on this data a bit, but I’m not responsible for the artistry behind this image.

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Press Release Time: Herschel and Keck take census of the invisible Universe

It’s always good to be able to present your results to the public, and today we have a nice press release to report. I’m a co-author on the paper, but the real heavy lifting was done by my colleague Caitlin Casey who used the 10m Keck telescopes in Hawaii to track down and measure the redshifts of some of the dusty galaxies we’ve found with the Herschel Space Observatory. In so doing we’ve found a range of galaxies going through starbursts, where a large number of new stars are formed in only a short time (on cosmological scales, at least). Some of these galaxies are surprisingly distant, and forming stars at a very high rate.


You can find out more from the ESA Press Release.