Archive for the 'The Business of Astronomy' category

Neil deGrasse Tyson isn't the only black astronomer

I have noticed a tendency recently for people to mention Neil deGrasse Tyson when talking about black people doing science, and doing astronomy in particular. There's absolutely nothing wrong with this; deGrasse Tyson is, in fact, black, and is, in fact, an astronomer. Indeed, as somebody who's caught the attention of the media and who evidently has the charisma to hold it, he's the closest thing we have to a modern-day Carl Sagan. So, go on celebrating him!

However, I am brought to mind this XKCD comic, in which Zombie Marie Curie comes back to take people to task for always mentioning her, and only her, when trying to convince people that women can do science.

There are actually lots of black astronomers out there, and I don't know who most of them are. (Just because I don't know who most of all astronomers are.) Yes, blacks do remain an underrepresented minority in astronomy, but that shouldn't take anything away from the individuals out there who are doing solid astronomy. I will mention two I have personally worked with. (There are more famous ones than these two, but my point is just to give a shout-out to a couple of good folks.)

Lou Strolger is an associate professor at Western Kentucky University. I met him in 1999 when I was a post-doc at LBNL and he was a graduate student at Michegan (although in residence in Chile) working with Chris Smith. In fact, Lou was a member of the other team; I was in Saul Perlmutter's supernova cosmology project, and Lou was in Brian Schmidt's team. However, in 1999, Saul's gang collaborated with Chris and Lou (and some others) on a search for "nearby" supernova. (Things less than a billion light-years away. You know, backyard stuff.) Lou went on to be a post-doc working with Adam Reiss (the third guy to share the Nobel Prize with Saul and Brian), and after that to WKU. Had I stayed at Vanderbilt, almost certainly I'd be collaborating with him now. My post-doc, Rachel Gibbons, and I talked to Lou about some collaborative ideas a year or so before I left Vanderbilt. Lou still works on supernovae and cosmology.

Jedidah Isler is a graduate student in astronomy at Yale— or, at least, she was last time I checked. It's possible she's graduated in the last year. I knew her when she was a master's student at Fisk University in the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program. Although I wasn't her advisor, I did interact with her, and worked with her on one project (that, sadly, didn't end up going anywhere, although she did come along to Chile with me and another graduate student on an observing run). Instead of continuing on at Vanderbilt, Jedidah had the opportunity to go work with Meg Urry at Yale; Meg Urry is one of the uberpundits of active galactic nuclei. (In an example of "small world" syndrome, one of Meg's post-docs, Erin Bonning, is going to be teaching physical science at Quest this coming year.) Last I talked to Jedidah, she was not sure she was going to continue in astronomy after graduating, but was considering going into public policy. We'll see what happens!

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Same Old Story : Too Many Graduate Students

Via Slashdot, I saw this report from the NIH advisory committee. The summary of the problem: there are too many graduate studnets produced in biomedical fields for the number of academic positions that will be available for them in the future. Quotes include:

NIH should create a program to supplement training grants through competitive review to allow institutions to provide additional training and career development experiences to equip students for various career options, and test ways to shorten the PhD training period.

Of course, earlier there is the statement of purpose:

Attract and retain the best and most diverse scientists, engineers and physicians from around the world to conduct biomedical research as well as increase the number of domestic students from diverse backgrounds who excel in science and become a part of the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workforce

This is a decades-old story at this point. I remember my junior or senior year of college (back in 1989 or thereabouts) hearing news stories about how there was going to be a "shortage of scientists", because all of those who rushed into science after Sputnik were going to be retiring. BS, of course, because during the intervening decades they all groomed multiple replacements for themselves, but they're only retiring once.

In my very early years of graduate school (1990-1992 or thereabouts), there was a statistical continuum of letters to the editor to Physics Today talking about the sea of physics post-docs out there: PhDs who could get a temporary post-doc position, or two, or three, but who couldn't find permanent positions. The astronomy journal club (I believe it was) at Caltech dedicated one of their meetings to talking about this issue. And, the professors there all gave lip service to "training students so that they can go into other careers." But I could practically hear each and every professor there thinking "but not my students— they will be the ones who get the coveted academic positions." (Some may even have been generous enough to think "Caltech" students.)

The sad truth is that those professors were probably mostly right, although not entirely. Of the three PhD students who worked with my advisor, Tom Soifer, when I was there, we're all in faculty positions. James Larkin is at UCLA and Tom Murphy is at UCSD. I'm the odd one out, teaching at a teaching-focused small liberal arts college rather than at a prestigious research Unviersity, but still I've got one of those rare and coveted professor positions. In Physics, professor positions everywhere are heavily dominated people with degrees from the top handfull of schools... yet they are all themselves still training graduate students, with graduate training programs designed to produce more academic researchers.

Socieites and meetings and focus groups will meet every so often and wring their hands about the problem, and give lip service either to increasing the number of staff scientists and decreasing the number of graduate students, or give lip service to "training graduate students for other careers". But little has changed despite this hand-wringing in the last twenty years, and I don't expect it to change any time soon. The professors, the ones in position of power, are the rare few who got the desired positions, so they aren't feeling the pain, and thus have little incentive to change it. Meanwhile, funding agencies keep talking about "attracting the best scientists", which leads to university administrations talking about "improving the graduate program", which inevitably leads to trying to attract more graduate students. It's a vicious cycle that's not going to end.

(And even if you do get into a scientific research position, you're still screwed. At least in astronomy, funding has gone completely into the toilet. Last I heard, NSF astronomy was granting only about 1/8 of the proposals it received, which is even worse than when I was failing to get NSF grants in the 00's. Also, national observatory facilities are being eviscerated on the altar of ausperity and gigantic projects. Not only are there too few research science positions for the graduate students we're producing, there are too many research science positions for the amount of science that our society is willing to support! It's bad all around.)

What you should do about it is be open and honest to any young people you know. Warn them that going into an academic PhD program is a trap. You will be enticed with the promise of an intellectually fulfilling job as a research scientist, once you put up with the years of hazing you undergo as a grad student. Only, at the other end, statistically you won't be able to find a job. I wrote about this back in January in my post Why go to graduate school in Physics?. The short version is that there's only one reason: because you want to be a physics graduate student for six years, and it's worth it to you to take six years out of your life to do that. Yes, if you want to be a professor, you have to get a PhD. Similarly, if you want to win the lottery, you have to buy lottery tickets. but the competition is intense.

You will also spend much of your graduate school career frustrated as you will see that everybody around you knows that the system is broken, that academic PhDs are being vastly overproduced... but that nobody is willing to do anything about it.

So do something about it yourself. Don't let yourself into the trap unless it's not a trap for you, but an interesting diversion for your life.

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Why go to graduate school in Physics?

I just came accross an article at The Economist entitled The Disposable Academic: Why doing a PhD is a waste of time. This has prompted me finally to write this post, which I've intended to write for a long time (like so many other posts on my too-quiet blog).

There is one, and only one, reason why you should go to graduate school in Physics or Astronomy. (This is probably true for any other field as well, but I'm going to stick to the field where I actually know what I'm talking about.) That one reason is: because you want to be a graduate student in physics for five or six years. That's it.

It is true that if you want to teach physics at the University level, or that if you want to have a career in physics research where you're leading and doing you're own research, you need to get a PhD. This isn't 100% true; you can certainly teach at the community college level with a masters' degree, and you can get a job working with a physics research group (although those are quite rare). However, for the most part, it's true. This leads many people to conclude that, because what they really want to do is spend their life as a professor at a University, they need to go to graduate school.

However, going to graduate school because that's what you want to do is similar to buying a lottery ticket because you want to be a millionaire. Yes, buying a lottery ticket is a prerequisite for winning the lottery, just as getting a PhD in physics is a prerequisite for being a physics professor. However, the fact that you've met that prerequisite is very far from assurance that you'll be able to do either. Thankfully, the chances of getting a physics professor job aren't quite as bad as the chances of winning the lottery. However, in both cases, they're bad investments.

There is a tremendous opportunity cost associated with being a physics graduate student. It's not as bad as being a humanities graduate student. For the most part, if you can get into a physics graduate school, your tuiton will be paid, and you will receive a stipend of something like $20,000/year. You may be able to make this as a research assistant— a good deal, because you're essentially being paid to do your PhD research. Or, you may have to teach some classes... which I also personally view as a good deal, but that's because I like to teach. (And, the teaching you do as a PhD student is lower stress and less time consuming than what a professor at a small liberal-arts college does.) However, there is still the opportunity cost. With your skills and abilities, you would be able to make a lot more money doing something else.

If you think you want to pursue a profession in academic physics, but you are going to view the years you spend working on your PhD as a sacrifice, then it's not worth doing it. The probability of getting that academic research job is just not high enough, even if you go to one of the top schools out there. What's more, ironically, the experience you get doing something else may well serve you better for any other job you might get thereafter, and it will almost certainly look better on your resume than the PhD will.

On the other hand, the life of the physics graduate student isn't necessarily a bad one. Yes, you will spend several years of your young life making a whole lot less money than you could otherwise. Yes, you will live the "graduate student lifestyle", meaning that you're still more or less pond scum in the hierarchy of your institution, and that you're still in training, still living the life of an apprentice. However, you do get to spend five or six years studying very interesting stuff, and performing original research. It can be a very cool thing to do. Yes, no matter who you are, you will go through moments of self-doubt where you wonder just what the hell you're doing, and you may go through periods of despair. But, overall, it can be a very fulfulling way to spend several years. That is, if you go into it recognizing that you're doing it for the sake of doing it, not as an investment in a future career that you'll have any assurance of achieving.

And, of course, to enjoy the graduate student lifestyle, you have to keep some perspective on life. If a professorial job were guaranteed, then perhaps one could stomach the idea of living several years with your life on hold, being underpaid and undervalued for working too hard. But, since that professorial job is far from guaranteed, you can't sacrifice your whole life to be a graduate student. Some will consider this heresy, will believe that graduate students are supposed to work really really hard because "your education is an investment in your future". But, again, a PhD program is today a terrible investment. Yes, you should probably expect to work up to 50 hours a week... not because you're overworking, but rather because you're inspired by your subject. But you should not, under any circumstance, join one of "those" labs where the professor expects you to work 10 hours a day, 7 days a week. You need to have a life. Work hard, but keep perspective. Recognize that you need to value your life right then.

What's more, you'll need to recognize that the culture of the PhD program is a bit dysfunctional. You almost certainly will feel cultural pressure to want to achieve the highly valued research professor position after graduate school, especially if you go to a top tier graduate school. You will feel this pressure from peers, and from your institution. (They partially judge the "success" of their graduate program based on the "placement" of their graduates.) Take it all with a grain of salt. It's your life. You are decidedly not a failure if you don't get one of the vaunted research positions, and indeed there's nothing shameful about deciding that you don't want one. Try to get one if you want one, and it's inevitable that you'll be disappointed if you don't, but don't feel ashamed, don't feel like a failure, and don't feel like you're letting anybody down if you don't get one. After all, most of us, if we're honest, will admit that we're overproducing PhDs in all fields, including physics, for the number of jobs out there that Physics PhDs are "supposed" to want.

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The End of Nobel Week

The Sunday (Dec. 11) after the Nobel Prize ceremony was a slow and quiet day. I slept in a bit (due to having gone to bed so late the night of the cermoney), but not as much as I had intended. That was fine, though, as late in the afternoon I fell asleep, to wake up briefly in the evening, only to fall asleep again. So, the day before yesterday, I slept a lot. (If only you could bank sleep.) The one fun thing I did on Sunday was head down to the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was a ship that was launched in the early 17th century, commissioned by the then-king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus II. Its trip didn't last long; on its first voyage, it tipped, took on water, and sank. In the mid-twentieth century, it was rasied again, and today forms the basis of a museum all about early 17th-century Swedish ships, shipbuilding, and life related to these things. The Vasa was a warship, loaded with cannon. At the time, Sweden was perenially at war with Poland (and sometimes Denmark as well). Ah, the Renaissance.

[Vasa]
The Vasa

On Monday, I did a bit more gratuitous walking about Stockholm, and then in the afternoon there was a symposium at the Albanova University Center. This is where SCP member Ariel Goobar is headquartered, along with the graduate students and post-docs who have worked with him and continue to work with him. The symposium was introduced by saying that we'd heard a lot from Saul, Adam, and Brian at the Nobel Lectures; for these two hours, we'd hear from other members of the team. The three laureates moderated, while four different panels representing four different eras of the whole supernova search business gave short talklets about the prehistory of the whole thing. That included Rich Muller talking about the LBL robotic search, as well as Rich's Nemesis idea that (if I am not mistaken) was the topic of Saul's thesis, and Bob Kirshner talking about supernova work "back in the day" when he was the thesis advisor for both Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss. It also included Richard Ellis talking about the original Danish high-redshift supernova search (which wasn't really succesful; they found only one supernova, and after maximum light). Mark Phillips talked about the genesis of the Calan-Tololo supernova search, which established Type Ia supernovae as calibratable standard candles suitable cosmology, and whose supernovae served as the low-redshift comparison set for both high-redshift teams.

[Saul on the Phone]
Many people commented on Saul's propensity for calling people at observatories, as Richard Ellis does here

The second panel was about the early days of the project. Carl Pennypacker, Brian Boyle, Heidi Newberg, and Warrick Couch talked about the early days of the SCP, when the weather was extremely frustrating, and Heidi figured she'd get a thesis out of it even if they didn't manage to find even a single supernova. (The first supernova was found in 1992.) Nick Suntzeff talked about the genesis of the High-Z team.

The next batch of people included Alejandro Clocchiatti and Chris Smith from the High-Z team, and Peter Nugent and myself from the SCP. After Peter told a very funny story abuot observing at the CTIO and neary running over Brian Schmidt in a runaway CTIO volkswagon bug whose brakes had failed, it was difficult to follow myself. In the SCP, we'd only been told what the program was and what we were going to be talking about an hour or so before the thing began, and I had no idea what anybody else was going to say, so I didn't really plan anything. The result was that I just blathered a little bit about Moore's Law and computer (and network) technology having made it all possible, and I completely failed to make any of the two or three points I was hoping to make about what it was like to adopt the search software from Alex Kim and Ivan Small, and spend 40-hour days processing the data as it came in during a search run.

Next, Alex Filippenko, Isobel Hook, Chris Lidman, Ron Gilliland, Saurabh Jha, and Alex Kim talked about spectroscopy (showing off how much better an 8m telescope is than a 4m telescope for the more distant supernovae), using HST to observe supernovae, and some other things. Saurabh told an amusing story about performing the supernova photometry. Adam Reiss had been put in charge of the analysis that lead to the High-Z team's discovery paper by team leader Brian Schmidt. Adam, in turn, had farmed out the work of getting the photometric lightcurves to several team members. When the due date came, he sent out an e-mail to all of them saying (I paraphrase) "thank you! Everybody but one (you know who you are) have turned in your data." This made Saurabh, a young grad student at the time, feel terrible, because he was the one. He went nuts over the next 36 hours, and managed to get his data in. Only after that, running into Peter Garnevich and Ron Gilliland, did he figure out that in fact nobody had managed to get their data in, and Adam's message wasn't entirely serious.

Finally, Ariel Goobar, John Tonry, Peter Garnevich, and Craig Hogan talked about the cosmology analysis. Craig Hogan, the theorist, went last. He pointed out, as we all know, that while we've established that the Universe is accelerating, we don't know why. "Dark Energy" is the name we give to the phenomenon, but we don't know what it is, or even if it is stuff at all; it may in fact be that we're seeing the breakdown of General Relativity. Craig and John did, at the end during a Q&A period, rain a bit on everybody's parade by saying that this field is more or less a dead field. I've had similar feelings myself for a few years, but few would agree with me. There are parameters about Dark Energy that can be measured; my suspicion is that we're just going to keep narrowing the errorbars around the default, not-terribly-interesting answer. (If the values are even slightly different from that answer, it's extremely interesting. However, you can never prove that that answer is right, you can only shrink the error bars around it. There are arguments, however, why it's not a waste of time to do this, and I won't get into it here.)

During the Q&A period, Hubble Space Telescope director Matt Mountain asked a leading question about "can't we all just get along?" He talked about repeated semesters where the HST time allocation committee would assign time to either Adam or to Saul; inevitably, he would then hear from the other one shortly thereafter. He suggested that with HST having only perhaps five years left, and nothing to follow it very soon, it was a crucial time for them to figure out ways in which the community as a whole could work together. Indeed, it sounded to me like he was inviting them to get together and put in a proposal to ask for a truly impressive amount of HST time, even more than the already-impressive amounts of time that has gone to supernova cosmology work. (This was what triggered Craig Hogan and John Tonry to caution that perhaps beating down the error bars on the two parameters we've identified, rather than trying to be more creative, might not be the best way to proceed.)

[Big Rodent]
For example, the human-sized rodent was pretty scary

After the symposium, both groups retired to the Junibcken museum, a museum dedicated to Swedish children's litrature, in particular the stories of Astrid Lindgren (the author of the Pippi Longstockings books). (I have to admit to being nearly compltely ignorant about those.) We all rode their Story Train (in little cars of 3), that took us through 15-minute tour of lovingly recreated dioramas of scenes from these stories... none of which I recognized. I was sitting with Shane and Stormy Burns as we made the trip, and we agreed that these would probably be delightful to kids who were fans of the books. We also thought that some of the scenes would be quite scary.

At the end of the train ride was a dinner, for both of the teams together. Of course, at the end of the dinner, there were some speeches, which were all quite nice. Alex Filippenko— who started collaborating with Saul on the SCP, but defected to the High-Z team in what I gather was a rather unpleasant falling-out— gave a nice speech crediting the two teams' differences with being strengths, as each team learned from the other. (And, of course, he mentioned, as did a man from the Royal Swedish Academy (whose name I didn't get) involved in the Nobel selection, that the fact that there were two different teams with the same result is part of why the world couldn't just dismiss it right away, as we so far have more or less done with the FTL neutrino result.) Several other peple told stories about various things, including Saul's father, and the woman from the Swedish diplomat service who had been appointed as Saul's liaison and shepherd during the whole process. She had only met Saul just this week, but said that she was impressed with how gracious he was talking to nearly everybody. Whether it was a 15-year-old or a colleague, he was always interested when talking to them.

[Santa Lucia]
Santa Lucia showed up to help banish the darkness; she brought with her a rather nice group of a capella singers who sang Christmas songs. At least, I think they were; but for "Deck the Halls", they were all in Swedish.

In the end, several people remarked that it was unusal for a group this large, especailly including collabortors, to come out to the Nobel Prize Ceremony. Brian, Adam, and Saul may be the ones with the glory, they may be the ones that history will remember, but they did a good job of sharing some part of the glory with the rest of us during this week. Somebody (I forget who, but it may also have been Alex Filippenko) commented that it's too bad that too many members of the public think that science is done by individuals working away all by themselves— antisocial individuals, even. For these groups that's certainly not the case, and indeed this science could never have been accomplished in such a mode. The fact that the Nobel Prize celebrates individuals only serves to cement this model in the public mind. However, as I said, Saul, Brian, and Adam were very generous with making it clear that there are a lot of people who share the credit for this discovery.

And now I'm on my way home; I've composed this post in fits and starts along my way home, and won't finish getting all the pictures embedded until after I'm home in Squamish. (I decided not to attend the Lucia Ball on the 13th, but to head home.)

This last evening, I also got what I think is the coolest souvenir of the trip. The Astrophysical Journal put out a special "Nobel" commemorative reprint of the Perlmutter '99 paper (as well as the corresponding Riess '98 paper, although I didn't see that one). We were all given copies of it. At the end of the night, those of us who were still there passed the copies around to each other to sign. A few signatures are missing, but I do have this Nobel commemorative reprint with the signatures of Saul and all the other authors (including myself). That's going to get framed and put on my office wall next to the Gruber prize!

[Signed Paper]
Perlmutter et al., 1999

I can't help but get a wee bit choked up when I think about this last week— when I think about the fact that I was a major contributor to one of the coolest discoveries in science in the last couple of decades, and that the world has now recognized that discovery with its highest honor. It's been quite a week.

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The Nobel Prize Ceremony and Banquet

[chair]
Saul's, Brian's, and Adam's chair

On the morning of Saturday, December 11, I walked down to the Nobel Museum, planning to have lunch with Shane Burns (my college thesis advisor at Harvey Mudd, and later a collaborator when I was a post-doc at LBNL). Because the English "tour" (really, lecture with people standing around) was starting just as I got there, I went along on that. Among other things, I learned that while there are 800 some-odd Nobel Laureates, only just over 40 of them are women. The Nobel Museum is only 10 or 20 years old. They have a rotating exhibit; right now, there's one about Marie Curie. (Ironically, even though the fraction of female Nobel laureates is small, Marie Curie is probably the most iconic physics laureate.) When the museum opened, and some laureates first showed up, they realized that they ought to have a guest book; they hadn't planned to do that, so at the last minute they decided to make the cafe the guest book. Somebody grabbed a white paint-pen, and got the laureates to sign the bottom of a chair. Now, if you turn over a chair, you can find signatures of laureates. (At lunch, I sat on the chair signed by David Gross. I felt very asymptotically free, and very colorful.)

At lunch, I chatted with Shane, sharing war stories about teaching on the block system, and telling him a little more about Quest. Shane teaches at Colorado College, the school that (decades ago) pioneered the idea of the block system, and the place Quest got the idea from. We also shared some stories about being bitter about tenure denials of years past. Shane was denied tenure at Harvey Mudd. I asked him if he was still bitter; he said he had been, but when he started at CC, he got over it. He's much happier at CC (among other things, he and his wife would much rather live in Colorado than Southern California), and it's where he always wanted to be. I feel similarly about Quest. I wouldn't say I'm over my bitterness from Vanderbilt (the experience of which provided so much great fodder for this blog during its glory days), but Quest is much more the sort of place that I've always wanted to be. (I just hope that stupid Canadian immigration doesn't prevent me from staying there long-term.)

[Shane & I]
Shane and I in front of a Marie Curie quote

After lunch, I hoofed it back to the hotel to put on my tails, and my way-too-tight shoes. I have a pair of shiny black shoes that I wear with my tux... although my use of the present tense is perhaps somewhat deceitful. While I've worn my tux recently, I'm not sure I've worn these shoes in over 10 years. And, just like the Universe, I've expanded in the last 10 years. Yes, most of that's at the waist, but when you get fat, you get fat everywhere. (This can lead to sleep apnea, it turns out, as you get fat on the inside of your windpipe.) What's more, I brought thick black socks, for very rational reasons. (Sweden, winter, ergo thick socks.) My feet were crushed in them, and I was in intense pain throughout much of the evening, especially when I had to stand up. At dinner, I took off my shoes (my feet were under the table, and nobody knew, so I didn't get ejected), which was quite nice.

From there, I went down to the Grand Hotel to pick up the bus for the Nobel Ceremony. It was quite nice. There were a lot of very well-dressed people about. Down on stage, there were chairs on one side for the Swedish Royal party, and chairs on the other side for the laureates. (That is, except for the three Peace laureates, who are three women from Africa and the Middle East, honored for their work in improving womens' rights. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo, Norway, each year, as it's a committee formed by the Norwegian Parliament that chooses the Peace laureates.) Behind them were chairs for what I assume were members of the committees that choose all of the Nobel prizes.

[Nobel Ceremony]
Left, front: a bunch of white guys about to get their Nobel Prizes. Right: front: the Swedish Queen, King, and Crown Princess.

I have to admit that I wanted to jump up and down and cheer and shout when Saul got his Nobel. Not only was it personally very exciting, what with my having been one of the core members of the team when we were doing the supernova searches and the analysis the last year or so before the announcement, but the man really deserved it. Yeah, in a sense, we all deserved it, and indeed we all got some recognition four years ago with the Gruber Prize. But, it was Saul who created this field. Adam and Brian, the two from the other team who shared the prize with Saul, also deserved it. They made an independent measurement of the acceleration, and the fact that there were two teams that came out with the measurement at the same time is the reason that people took the measurement as seriously as they did when it first came out. However, Saul was the one who was pushing it in the early days, back in 1988, and who persevered in pushing it through what sounded like several very early trying years. He kept pushing it, cajoling observatory time allocation committees to allow him to schedule the time the way he needed, even as some members of what would become the other team were still swearing up and down that it couldn't be done. I seriously doubt I would have had the perseverance to stick with the program for so long, taking four years before even one supernova was discovered, and another two before a batch of a mere 7 were discovered, and another three after that before the answer that he'd been looking for all along came out. But Saul is extremely optimistic, and extremely perseverant.

[Saul Getting the Nobel Prize]
Saul Perlmutter getting his Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden

I do have to admit, I took the opportunity to give in to my jetlag during the ceremony. Except for the first speech, all of the rest were in Swedish. My knowledge of Swedish is less than my knowledge of Klingon, for at least I know one word in Klingon. ("Kaplah!") We did have booklets with translations of the speeches. However, I could read those faster than those giving the speeches could say them, so I had a bit of time after each one to doze off.... As I write this, it sounds pretty horrifying to say that I napped during the Nobel prize ceremony, but, well, it was practical! I was always awake as the King gave each prize. (Everybody in the room stood up when the King stood up. I would hate to be King.)

After that was the Nobel Banquet, which was quite an exercise in pomp and circumstance. The banquet was in this huge hall at City Hall, which is nicely designed to look like an outdoor venue. The (very high) ceiling is a projection screen, on which are projected vaguely cloudy-looking things, and the inner walls look like outside walls of Swedish buildings, so the illusion is quite effective. (Yes, I couldn't help making a comparison to the ceiling at Hogwarts.)

[Banquet Room]
The room where we had the Nobel Banquet (after it was over)
[Banquet Ceiling]
The Hogwarts-style ceiling

During the three-course meal, there were some ballet/theater/music numbers, where performers would move through the room and do... something. I didn't completely follow what was going on, but it was fun. As they were finishing, an extremely efficient regiment of waiters would come, stand by every table, and then, all at once, serve everybody. I've been at many big events where the head table is served... and by the time the last table is served, the people at the head table have already finished, gone home, had a full-night's sleep, started their next day, quit their job, and moved to another city. Not here. Everything was very efficient, very synchronized, and very well managed by the professional cadre of waiters.

[Dessert]
Dessert had red hair

The dinner was quite good. Others at the table who I guess are much more into gourmet food than I was were poo-pooing it ("only a three course meal"), but hey, it was way better than I usually eat!

After that was over, there was "dancing in the Golden ballroom". On display were the medals and individually customized diplomas for the laureates. Had security not been watching, I would have grabbed a snapshot of it. (Indeed, we were not supposed to take pictures at all during the banquet, but I figure, what's the point of being an iconoclast if you can't take pictures when you aren't supposed to?)

From there, we retired to the University of Stockholm, where the students there put on the nightcap ball. This was a huge party and masquerade, attended it seemed mostly by undergraduates. Some people were in quite interesting costumes. There was a huge array of themed rooms, with different things going on in different rooms. Because my feet were utterly killing me, I spent a bit of time sitting in one place listening to a nice jazz combo. Later on, in another room, I found a stage where a string quartet plus a clarinetist (all with painted-on masks on their face) started playing the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. They were really quite good, but alas being in a party room where everybody was talking, I was able to sort of hear them standing right next to the stage. Saul, a violinist himself, was elsewhere in the same room; he didn't even realize that the chamber group was there playing. Sadly, I didn't get to stay to hear them complete even the first movement, because the SCP had planned to take more group photos at 1:15 AM.

[Quintet]
Masqued Swedish students playing the Mozart Clarinet Quintet
[The SCP]
A Well-Dressed SCP Staircase Photo in need of some image processing to balance the contrast in the front and back

Next followed group photos. We started with what is a bit of an unofficial occasional SCP tradition: the staircase photo. We then did photos standing around, and then every conceivable combination of people had their picture taken with Saul. (I told Saul he was going to have to sign each and every one of the photos later.)

At 2AM, I took a taxi home, and took off my shoes, and then goofed off a bit on the computer to unwind. Ufda. My feet still hurt the next day. Excedrin helped me sleep through the night... that is, insofar as sleeping from 4AM to 8:30AM is "through the night". I sense a nap coming on.

A month ago, when I was in the throes of my third block in a row and reaching the burnout stage that all professors who teach on the block seem to at the very least flirt with when that happens, I was considering not coming. I'm not somebody who loves to travel, and having to deal with getting (and paying for...) the formal wear and all of that made the thing seem a bit like a pain. But, I'm extremely happy that I've come. It's been great catching up with members of the SCP (including chatting with Brad Schaefer about our mutual student, Andrew Collazzi, who did research with me as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt and just recently finished his PhD with Brad at LSU). The pomp and circumstance surrounding all of this is, really, a little bit silly (much as the Academy Awards in the USA are silly, or even for that matter the Presidential Inauguration), but it's a good kind of silly. It's celebrating the furthering of human knowledge, which is a great thing to celebrate. And, it's all a very classy kind of silly. Except for my still-tingling feet, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and although it's barely over 12 hours later, watching Saul being given that Nobel Prize is one of those life events I wouldn't want to have missed.

[SCPers from the Late-1997 Berkeley Analysis Team]
(Some of the) people who were in Berkeley during the 1997 push to complete the analysis that led to the discovery of the accelerating Unvierse. Front, L to R: Patricia Castro, me, Saul Perlmutter, Nelson Nunes. Back, L to R: Peter Nugent, Sabastien Fabbro, Robert Quimby, and Greg Aldering either completely wasted, or just facpalming at it all.

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Nobel Week Festivities Part 1

I'm out here in Stockholm for the ceremonies surrounding Saul Perlmutter's Nobel Prize. Most of the members of the group who were on the 1999 paper are here.

The Big Event (not to be confused with the Bang) comes tonight, when the prizes themselves are presented. However, there's been a fair number of festivities already. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon terribly jetlagged. It seemed odd that it was Wednesday to me, what with my having left early Tuesday morning. The flights were very long, but not that long. From this, I'm concluding that the Earth must be round, and that there must have been a 9 hour change in the clock time to account for the position of the Sun relative to my position on the planet. That it was already dark at 3PM didn't help much.... We're so far North that the Sun never gets very high in the sky in the winter, and it doesn't stay up very long. It was also cloudy when I arrived, so the deep twilight was even deeper.

I went to my room and crashed for a 1-hour power nap before putting on my jacket and tie and the shoes in which I'm not as happy walking as I am in my Birkenstocks, and, with Don Groom, wandered in the vague direction of the Grand Hotel, eventually finding it through not the most efficient route. From there, we went over to a reception at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. I foolishly forgot to bring my camera, and also didn't take any pictures with my phone, so no snaps from that night.


Susana Deustua before the Nobel Lecture

The next morning (Thursday, 8-December) was the Nobel lectures at the University of Stockholm. The physics lectures lasted about two hours. They started with Brian Schmidt, went through Adam Riess, and ended with Saul's. For the last 15 minutes of Saul's lecture, he made a point of describing how the whole team worked together. It evolved over time. Different members of the team were active in different eras. When he got to the era of the couple of years before the discovery, he was describing the distributed effort with people at telescopes all over the world, and the team in Berkeley working on a variety of things. What he said when my picture popped up was: "Rob Knop, who thinks, types, and programs faster than I talk." (Saul talks pretty fast, so this was a nice complement.)


Saul giving the Nobel Lecture

After the physics lecture, our team snuck out of the hall. (All due apologies to the Chemistry and Economics laureates.) We had scheduled a team lunch for the SCP at a smorgasbord restaurant. Where was it? I don't know... we got on a bus, and then on a boat to make our way over to the restaurant. The boat ride was nice, although up on the top deck it really was rather cold. Yesterday, I posted a group photo of the members of the SCP who were present at the lunch. There were a few people who were on the discovery paper who weren't there, because they hadn't arrived yet (I'm presuming), including Patricia Castro, Isobel Hook, and Matthew Kim. (Also on that paper was Alex Filippenko, but in 1996 he defected to the other team, so he hasn't been going to SCP team meetings for a decade and a half now.) Standing in for Gerson Goldhaber is his daughter, three from the right; Gerson died in 2010.


On the boat after lunch. Left to Right: Saul Perlmutter Alex Kim, Ivan Small, Julia Lee, Julia's Husband (Andrew, I think), and me

Joseph Calleja and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra at the 2011 Nobel Prize Concert

Finally, on the evening of December 8, I went to the Nobel concert. It's much easier to buy extremely expensive concert tickets when they're in a foreign currency, and you don't know the exchange rate. I blithely put down my credit card and was charged 1,500SEK, not realizing until later that that was in the neighborhood of $250...! I don't know if I've ever spent that much to go to a single concert before. The concert was good; I've been to other concerts that cost a quarter as much that were just as good, but you don't get the opportunity to go to the Nobel Concert very often, so what the heck. Tenor Joseph Calleja was the soloist, and he was quite good. I must admit, though, as a violinist myself, my favorite piece on the program was Dance Macabre by Saint-Saens. At the concert, I was sitting next to Rich Muller, about whom there's been a buzz in the science blogosphere recently because of his coming out and saying that, yeah, when he reanalyzed the data, it turns out that climate change is real just like all the people in the field who were working on it all along had said. I didn't talk to him about climate change, but I did talk about my general sense of despair about the world in general. (I feel more like we're screwed now than I did in the Cold War 1980s.) He doesn't share it at all; he thinks 2011 is the best time to be alive of all of human history. I must admit myself that I'm in a teaching job now that's more like the job I'm supposed to be in (and that I've always wanted) than any other job I've ever had, so perhaps 2011 is the best year for Rob Knop... but for the world at large? I honestly think that the world was a better place before Sep 11, 2001; not because of the terrorists directly, but because of how the world (mostly the USA) responded to it. But, enough gratuitous philosophizing.

Yesterday (Friday December 9) was a quiet day for me. There were events, but I didn't have tickets to any of them. There are finite tickets to each event, so Saul has been parceling them out. There was a reception at the Nordic Museum last night, but because I went to the December 7 reception, I sat out last night's. A bunch of team members also went to their national embassies for some sort of celebration or another. I'm not sure if I would have been sent to the USA or Canadian embassy... and, in any event, I spend too much time criticizing the government on microblogging platforms for them to want to be seen with me. I took the opportunity of the free day to sleep a lot...! Also, I had lunch with MICA director and Caltech astronomer George Djorgovski and his wife Leslie Maxfield (with whom I was in a production of Hello Dolly at Caltech a bit under 20 years ago); they were randomly in Stockholm for a conference.


George, Leslie, and myself

As an afterthought, I do need to read my camera's manual and figure out how to use it better. I've got blurry pictures of Saul and others from a great distance giving the Nobel lectures, and blurry pictures from the Nobel concert. It's not the world's most expensive camera, and it's already better than my skill with a camera for normal snapshot situations. However, I do know enough to be able to take advantage of some of its low-light tweaks, and to be able to take advantage of "focusing at infinity", so I should figure out what all the mysterious icons on the screen really mean when you're futzing with the settings.

Today (Saturday December 10) is the big event. Mid-afternoon, I'll start putting on my formal outfit. Once those two hours are done, I'll head down to the Grand Hotel, where we'll all get on the bus to go to the Nobel Banquet. After that is the midnight ball. I'm not sure exactly what that means, but I'm sure it has something to do with "rolling without slipping down a plane inclined at angle ϑ". That's how I usually encounter a ball.

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The SCP during Nobel Week in Stockholm

Much pomp and circumstance in Stockholm this week. I'll blog a bit more about it when I get a chance, but for now, here's a photo of the group that was taken yesterday during an enormous smorgasbord lunch.

Front, L to R: Alex Kim, Pilar Ruiz-Lapuente, Andy Fruchter, Richard Ellis, Julia Lee, Susana Deustua, Saul Perlmutter, Warrick Couch, Heidi Newberg, Silvia Gabi, Chris Lidman, Don Groom.

Middle: Nelson Nunes

Back, L to R: Ivan Small, Sebastien Fabbro, Greg Aldering, Robert Quimby, Brad Schaefer, Rob Knop, Reynald Pain, Carl Pennypacker, Shane Burns, Rich Muller, Ariel Goobar, Peter Nugent

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Accelerating universe wins 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess have shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for the 1998 discovery that the expansion of our Universe is accelerating. This acceleration is what led us to conclude that most of the energy density of the Universe is made up of dark energy, although in the time since then there have been independent observations that point to dark energy.

My favorite comment was the one made by Martin Rees, who wishes that the Nobel Prize could be shared by more than three people, as the two groups deserved recognition in addition to the leaders of the two groups. Indeed, in 2007, the Gruber Prize in Cosmology was divided four ways: Saul, Brian, Saul's Group, and Brian's Group. (I thus shared in the "Saul's Group" part of the prize.)

Here is a link to a talk that I gave in Second Life a couple of years ago about the discovery of the accelerating universe. An audio recording of the talk is online, in addition to slides in PDF format.

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The Astronomy Decadal Survey

Every 10 years, a committee of astronomers gets together to solicit input from astronomers across the United States. This committee then sets forth a set of recommendations for the priorities in funding astronomy programs for the next ten years. By and large, the USA astronomy community buys into this effort, and accepts as a group the committee's recommendations as the recommendations of the consensus of the whole astronomy community.

Today (2010 Aug 13), the report for the 2010 decadal survey was released. Places to find information about it:

If you scroll down on the first page linked above, you can find the full text of the survey online for free. (I have just glanced at it, and it appears to be scanned images, at perhaps not sufficient resolution.)

So far, I've only looked at the presentation. There's not a lot surprising in here. It lists the primary driving science goals, which are things that are already the current "holy grails" of astronomy. It includes detection of gravitational waves (which is strictly a physics issue, but which can hopefully then be harnessed for astronomy), understanding the first generation of stars that caused the reionization of the Universe, understanding the Big Bang and also the present epoch of cosmic acceleration, and finding Earthlike planets outside our Solar System (but still within our Galaxy).

The funding recommendations are specific, at least for large projects. On the space side, the top priority is WFIRST, a wide-field infrared survey telescope, which would be used both for signatures of probing cosmic acceleration and for finding exoplanets (as well has being a "general use" infrared telescope that would complement the JWST-- the JWST already being under construction.)

The second priority is one I applaud: reinvigorating a previously existing NASA program of "explorer class" missions. These are small and mid-size space missions which don't have the cost of something like HST, JWST, Spitzer, Chandra, or WFIRST. Some of these missions have been extremely productive, and I'm glad to see the report listing these. I haven't read the full text for the justification of it, but I suspect the the flexibility for responding to new opportunities that come with new discoveries, together with the Explorer track record, are key.

After that are LISA, a space mission that will detect gravitational waves and really make gravitational wave astronomy possible, and then a powerful international X-ray telescope.

On the ground based side, the budget scenario is more depressing. While the presentation linked above seems to believe there is a decent chance that NASA will be able to fund the top priorities, the ground based large intiatives are more sketchy. There is this ominous statement: "In event NSF budget is as predicted by agency, there can be no new starts without closure of major facilities following senior review."

What are the new starts? Two things are listed. The first is LSST, which has been the bandwagon of astronomy for several years already. It's going to be an impressive project, an 8m telescope in Chile that will survey the entire night sky in four different colors once every four days. This is going to produce an utterly mind-bogglingly huge amount of public data-- and indeed, some of the technical challenges of LSST involve effectively dealing with all of that data. This is going to be an impressive data set that will be able to do a whole lot.

It won't however, be able to do everything. I have heard some astronomers say "the LSST will do everything". Sometimes they're theorists, but often they ought to know better. Yes, the LSST is going to be an amazing dataset that will "just do" some of what people do in special targeted projects right now. But there's a whole lot that it's not going to do by itself. I already know that there are astronomers out there (like, say, me) who are worried that bread-and-butter facilities used by lots of astronomers, especially astronomers who aren't at a Caltech or a Harvard (i.e. an institution with their own private telescopes), will be sacrificed on the altar of the LSST. (The key players in which you can be sure are going to come predominantly from institutions that also have their own private mid-size telescopes.) I really hope this doesn't have to happen. There is something called the "MREFC" -- Major Research Equipment and Facilities Construction -- an NSF budget thingy, the politics and economics of which I am clueless about. Ideally, LSST (and the other major projects) are going to be at least partially funded out of this, so that they don't have to eat up the entire NSF astronomy budget (leaving people who aren't key players on those huge projects completely in the cold).

The second major project mentioned is participating in one of the efforts to build a thirty-meter class "segmented mirror" telescope. This is a telescope like the Keck telescope, only with three times the diameter. Whereas the LSST will be surveying the entire night sky every four days, this giant telescope will be used for targeted observations of the most difficult targets requiring the best light-gathering power possible.

I've left out quite a number of projects in this brief driveby. Take a look at the presentation... and if you have a whole lot of time to blow, you can always read the entire report.

As astronomers always say with great optimism when one of these things come out, "it's going to be an exciting decade for astronomy." I have to admit, though, that with ongoing financial crises that don't seem to be recovering as fast as we'd hoped, coupled with the sure knowledge that in coming decades there's going to be ever more economic, political, and humanitarian turmoil as a result of anthropogenic climate change, that I won't be surprised if over the the public starts to lose patience with pure science in the face of increasingly urgent crises (that are upon us because we spent so much time ignoring science).

Update: for a more thorough summary, see what Julianne has written at Cosmic Variance here, here, and here.

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The Gruber Prize Ceremony

Hello from England! Last night was the award ceremony for the 2007 Gruber Prizer in Cosmology. It was good to meet up with the members of the SCP again, many of whom I haven't seen in several years. Picture below is the members of the collaboration who were present, underneath one of the many trees labelled as "Newton's Apple Tree" in the UK; this one is at Trinity college, and apparently is a descendant of the original tree from the apocryphal story about the apple falling on Newton's head. Here we are all looking for apples of our own, but evidently these apples are made of dark energy and as such are not falling into gravitational potential wells....

P1030415.JPG

At the awards ceremony, a number of people spoke. I want to comment on three things that people said. First, Jim Peebles, one of the previous winners of this award, thanked the awardees for two things. First, for solving one problem: the mass density of the Universe, and fixing the cosmological "age crisis" through the measurement of a positive cosmological constant. Second, for the introduction of a new conundrum: just what is this cosmological constant or dark energy stuff? There's nothing scientists like better than a good conundrum.

The two individual winners of the award, Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt, each spoke, and each had similar themes to what they said. Saul started by noting that there is this popular image of the lone scientist working on brilliant discoveries all himself, but often it doesn't work that way. He then went through a serious of snapshot images he has in his head of the process of discovering the acceleration of the Universe, mentioning the names of each of the rest of his team who were present. (About me, he said that I type and program faster than he talks... and if you've heard Saul talk, that's saying something!)

Brian Schmidt, likewise, came up and said that he wasn't speaking for him, but he was speaking as the representative of the High-Z team. He said that a lot of the problems that are present in science today can not besolved be individuals, despite the fact that many prizes are still given to individuals. Rather, they are solved by teams.

It is significant to me that half of this award went to not individuals, but to the teams of which Saul and Brian were leaders. There were many, many contributions all worthy of recognition.

If I were more cynical I might say that Saul and Brian were just saying what they were supposed to say, facing the fact that about 1/3 of the people in the audience were the other team members.... However, I am not that cynical. I really believe that what Saul and Brian said was heartfelt. I appreciate both of them and the Gruber Foundation for so publically recognizing that this discovery did require teams, and that those teams were worth of honor.

I close with just one picture from the dinner later last evening. Alex Kim, who is pictured, was a graduate student at UC Berkeley when I and Peter Nugent arrived as post-docs in 1996. Ironically, Alex Kim defended his thesis in late 1996, but both Peter and I defended our theses in early spring 1997... for a while, the post-docs didn't exactly yet have their PhDs, but the grad student did! You can see that Alex (now a permanent staff member at LBNL, after a stint as a post-doc in Paris) has done well, for he seems to have located a new standard candle....

P1030434.JPG

Photograph by Nelson Nunes

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