Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Wednesday 22 June 2011

Look at the widdl' kittens wid their widdl' wegs !!

Aaargh ! What to do what to do what to do.... the kittens are getting bigger every day, and they're gonna need housing somehow... somewhere. Unless they remain unofficial astro-kitties relying on the generosity of passing astronomers to survive and continue living in squalor.

Now if I owned my own house and planned to be here for 10 years or more I'd take them on without pausing for breath. But I don't, and I don't. Would my landlord let me have pets ? Probably. Would it be a good idea ? Not so sure. It would be cruel to keep them inside all day because my house is helping to hasten to Heat Death of the Universe by somehow generating vast quantities of heat throughout the day. Nor can them stay outside while I'm away, because of the superabundance of dogs.

But... they're so little ! With their little legs and their little tails and their little noses ! But what if I leave in a year or 3 ? They'd have to spend 6 months in quarantine in the US at least, and getting them to Europe sounds nigh-on impossible. And then I'd feel like a schmuck.

Saturday 18 June 2011

Physicists in the Caribbean

To begin with stating the bleedin' obvious, I've already mentioned physicists many times. What I have not mentioned is the Caribbean, except in the implicit way that it's a big blue watery thing surrounding the island. I think I may have set some kind of terrible, ultra-geeky record by being here 16 weeks and not, until now, having visited the beach. This fact has been rightly greeted with universal disapproval, except by the locals, who rarely bother to go at all.

I've nothing against beaches. But UK beaches offer a choice of sitting on the sand, or sitting on the rocks. You can, of course, paddle, but swimming is for about 10 months of the year something you should only do if you're totally delusional or have lost all feeling on account of a nasty case of leprosy. Consequently, the prospect of a visit to the beach instinctively instills in me a sort of apathetic dread.

However, the Caribbean offers the prospect not only of swimming, but also having something to look at while swimming. The cold green dark murk that is the north Atlantic is replaced with a strange, warm transparent substance, the kind that can only be found in Britain in expensive tropical fish tanks.  Creatures - some call them "fish", I think - that would otherwise require a setup that ordinarily only a James Bond villain could afford can be found swimming around as though they own the place. Which, in fact, they do, because  the locals rarely visit the beach so miles of deserted sand are the norm.

OK, not deserted. I lied about that bit, but I couldn't think of a good word for "having the population density of Alaska". But put it this way - unlike any British beach, you won't have a problem finding a space. Ever. Good frakin' grief, should a Puerto Rican ever visit a British beach, they'd probably die of sheer anger. The idea you might have to pay in a car park for a few square metres of sand with something approaching ice to swim in would probably cause them to shoot a whole a lot of people, judging by the murder rate here.

In the course of this expedition I learned two valuable lessons :
1) I am the world's worst snorkeler, able to consume the equivalent of the Caspian sea no matter how well-fitting the gear, along with enough salt to... umm....  do really salty things.... yes... that'll do
2) "Enough suncream" is not even an oxymoron. It is a purely abstract concept, a Platonic ideal if you will, it certainly cannot actually be achieved in reality. Hence I now resemble a sort of lobster-human hybrid, except without the protective armour and longevity of the lobster. Or its underwater breathing capability. Basically I've been given all the negative aspects of lobserity, namely, being quite red. But not in the photographs, mercifully.

If it were up to me we'd hold group meetings here
This guy is not a physicist. You can tell by the way he's being really awesome.
OK, there's also a lesson 3) I've really wasted my weekends. I'm not making that mistake again...

Monday 13 June 2011

The Ocean is Gone

America is a very great nation. It has given us root beer, the ice cream sandwich and The Simpsons. It may even have helped us out in a couple of world wars, if only to turn up late and complain about the weather. However, we must forgive our colonial brethren their late entries. It isn't their fault that their knowledge of geography is so bad they can't locate the ocean on the map, so I expect they just got a little lost along the way.

Alas, I'm not going on a random anti-American rant. Unfortunately, the above statement is literally true, albeit exaggerated (but only very slightly) for comic effect. For Americans - and Canadians too - have absolutely no knowledge whatsoever of the Southern Ocean. Even if it's printed in great big letters on the map (as it happens to be in the world map I recently bought from Amazon), they vigorously deny its existence, preferring to claim that the map-maker must've been drunk and/or incompetent.

Such strange ignorance is not some unfortunate oversight on the part of an individual, although that would be bad enough. No, every single non-U.K. citizen is completely unaware of one of the great geographical features of the world.

Reactions to seeing it displayed on a map have been wide-ranging but entirely negative, as though they've just been told the Atlantic is a myth. The most thoughtful retorts have included, "Oceans are between continents, not around them", and, "but where would you set the boundary ?", as if the rest of the ocean is divided by border fences or something.

The majority, however, are more scornful :
 "The Southern Ocean ? Where is that, Morrowind ?"
"You need to be able to differentiate between fantasy and reality."
"Where's your Northern Ocean ?"
"He believes in the Southern Ocean, BURN HIM !!!"

OK, I may have slightly made that last one up. Still... crazy people. Apparently the Southern Ocean has a long, chequered and not terribly interesting history of being recognised by whoever it is that recognises these things. So take great care when talking to the Americans. Not only do they habitually use the word "fanny" in completely the wrong way, they also have really weird ideas about the geography of the planet. Maybe there's a causal relation between these two facts, but I prefer not to speculate.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

The Bard is Back

... in a new film by Roland Emmerich, of all things. Yes, the man who graced the silver screen with the immortal line, "Let's nuke the bastards" has now taken it upon himself to direct a film about one of the greatest playwrights of all time. This can only end well. If Michael Bay is the producer, so much the better. Based on his previous works, I imagine it will go something like this :

Bill (last name presently unknown), struggling playwright, is an alcoholic whoremonger who's drunken shenanigans have estranged him from his only legitimate and very irritating son, who has gone to... umm.... Edinburgh, why not, to take part in a Latin spelling quiz with his highly attractive girlfriend. Casting ? Well, Ian McShane as Shakespeare, can't go far wrong there, let's say Shia LaBeouf as his son with just about anyone other than Megan Fox as his girlfriend. Kristanna Loken, perhaps, for no particular reason. And no, I'm not about to sully this blog with sordid pictures of LaBeouf.

It's entirely possible that Kirstanna would be suited to Elizabethan attire, but I prefer not to take that chance.

Bill's antics mean he quickly falls foul of the Church and falls in with sinister astrologer John Dee, played by Christopher Walken. Bill quickly sobers up when Dee, in a power-point presentation masterpiece, tells him that the neutrinos from the Sun are mutating into tachyons and mutters something about the end of the world. Then there are lots of special effects shots where London is blasted by tachyons and the hands on Big Ben (Roland probably does not know when this was built) start spinning wildly. Suddenly Bill himself is hit by a bolt of expensive CGI.

Bill awakens in a frozen landscape. Oh noes ! Our hero has been transported back about 10,000 years when Britain was still covered in ice and sabre-tooth tigers. Now Bill's mission is to trek north across the frozen waste, hoping that somehow he can find his son and find out if he won the spelling quiz or not.

This takes surprisingly little time. Bill impresses the primitive locals with his acting skills and, in a short montage, travels from village to village performing plays in exchange for food and weapons. He makes short work of the sabre-tooth tigers, apparently having a hitherto unknown talent for spear-throwing, about which the locals make some truly awful pun.

Alas, when Bill reaches the site of Edinburgh things take a shocking turn for the worst. His son is trapped in a cave by a giant fire-breathing reptile, which has a curious habit of changing size in each shot. Things are looking grim for our hero, but he is saved at the last minute when a gigantic spaceship descends, shoots the monster, and then promptly leaves without further incident.

Bill is re-united with this son, who turns out to have discovered a mysterious stone ring inside the cave covered in strange Latin symbols (Roland is probably not aware of the differences between Latin and Egyptian). Fortunately, he has been able to decipher them with the help of his highly attractive girlfriend. The ring turns out to be a portal through time, which Bill uses to return to Elizabethan England. His son, however, decides to remain behind, although no-one is quite sure why.

He is wearing a suit on account of being Ian McShane

The movie ends with a shot of the Complete Works of Shake-spear just in case the audience didn't get it, and then everything explodes for no reason.

Monday 6 June 2011

Physicists (?) of the Caribbean (?)

I must apologise for the extremely bloggy posts of late. I was much happier writing about the similarities between Xena and Caprica 6 and UK politics as a function of Star Wars, but unfortunately the smaller matter of the real world has made its presence felt in a rather unavoidable way, like... umm.... well, like a very unpleasant thing. Pirates of the Caribbean 3, maybe.

I recently posted that I have little idea as to where I am. In accordance with the Uncertainty Principle, this should mean that I know exactly where I'm going, or what I'm doing, or something. Alas reality declares that I know nothing at all about these things. So much for physics. Fear not, dear reader. all will become clear if you have but a small amount of patience to continue reading.

I also recently wrote that Cornell have lost the right to run the telescope from October onwards, for at least the next 5 years. Details of how our new masters will run things are beginning to trickle down, and the news is only slightly more confusing than trying to watch Inception backwards. So although physicists will still exist in 5 years, and the Caribbean also seems quite likely to still be here, exactly how many physicists will be in the Caribbean is anyone's guess.

The source of this confusion is the announcement that salaries will change from their current simple salary model to 50% salary, 50% soft money. Which means, effectively, that only 50% of everyone's salary is guaranteed - the rest people are expected to come up with by themselves, i.e. by applying for grants. In US universities, apparently this isn't so uncommon, although 25% soft money is more normal. In observatories, it's not normal practise.

Such a shocking announcement has not been widely received with much enthusiasm. This much I can say without fear of reprisal, because it should be blatantly obvious to anyone concerned. Although there is not really much concern - I think - as to job security, people are confused about what their job will entail in the future. Will absolutely everyone be expected to apply for grants, or only some ? Will there be enough time left after proposal-writing to get any science done, or will we run out of cake ?

Now of course, I've only been here 3 months, and I've never even heard of the soft-money approach until a few weeks ago. So there's no point me venturing or even forming an opinion as to whether it's a good idea or not. Nor do I care to reveal who thinks what about which particular aspect of The Plan* or whether it seems better or worse than the Battlestar Galactica spin-off. On face value, the transition plan is probably a mite better than the Cylon Plan, which was to kill all the humans.

* In any case, everyone's opinion is still in flux as we await further information.

It hasn't helped matters that since returning from Boston I've had very low water pressure at home (i.e. no shower), owing to a boring problem with the account. With a wonderfully ironic twist, my office in work is flooding, despite being on the 4th floor, as my shiny new air conditioning unit has sprung a leak. Although most of these problems are being remedied, it can't give a very good first impression to my summer student, who arrived to find the place full of angry astronomers and having to share a flooded office with a smelly Briton and no computer.

Sean Bean wouldn't have tolerated this. On the other hand, as Director his policies of regularly flooding the telescope (and using it to control an EMP satellite to cause the global financial crisis) aren't remembered very fondly here. Under his brutal leadership there was barely any astronomy done at all, and so hated is he that his photograph doesn't even appear alongside those of the other Directors.

I think I've just reached my normally unreachable cynicism tolerance limit for the week (and yes it's only Monday), so to avoid lasting brain damage here is a picture of some kittens a bunch of us have adopted.

EDIT - Addendum : the angry phase is, apparently, fast-fading. Further meetings revealed little or no new information, but certainly managed to ease tensions. Which is good. I could not attend the latest session, preferring instead to attempt to restore the water supply to my house.

Saturday 4 June 2011

Where am I ?

Just where is it I live, exactly ? Not a difficult question, you might think. That's why we have things like street names and house numbers. Except that such things seem beyond the dreams of most rural Puerto Ricans. Like rural Britain, the place is chock-full of small villages you drive through in under half a minute, all containing a few dozen houses, a pub, a church and/or school. But no dinosaurs, despite appearances.

But that's where the similarities screech to a halt. In Britain the current village you're entering is clearly and reliably signposted. In Puerto Rico this is not so, so you have to pay careful attention to where the signs say the road goes. and then more or less guess when you think you've arrived. Of course, all the locals know which place is which, but they don't seem to grasp the concept of "visitors".

Then there are the places themselves. Naturally the architecture is completely different, the pubs are actually bars, and I have no knowledge of the churches and don't intend to. The schools, then. Each one comes with a speed limit zone (15mph, strictly enforced - if the police are actually around, no speed cameras) clearly marked by solid yellow lines across the road. Fair enough, except that these low speed zones occur in the most unlikely and implausible of places (i.e. on 40mph highways with concrete crash barriers on either side), and in such numbers that the locals must be, shall we say, prolific.

But what if you're not looking for a school ? What if you want to visit a particular house ? Well, you can't, unless you already know precisely where it is. There are no house numbers because there are no street names, because there are no streets. Alright, there might be roads with houses on, but in most villages there's only a single road (and innumerable side-roads, which, I assume, lead to the dinosaur pens) so no-one has seen fit to bother naming them. This is almost as true in Arecibo itself as the rural environs. Although it claims to be one of the larger cities in Puerto Rico, it's actually even less of a proper city than Milton Keynes. What is actually is is a collection of buildings that are in the same place only in the sense that they're all in Puerto Rico.

Things are, in fact, more clearly marked along the motorway, as there are distance markers every 100m. That's every hundred meters. Along a road where exits may occur every 10 miles or so. This is so pointless I can't even see anyone saying, "It seemed like a good idea at the time", because it quite clearly wasn't. Oddly, no-one pointed out that it would have been infinitely more useful to devote the time and energy wasted making these thousands of markers to making street name signs and house numbers instead.

Why would I ever need to know my position so precisely ? I don't understand...

Which leads me back to the original question. In short, I have no idea where I am. I know the village name only because people have told me. I could get a mailbox, but that's a) very difficult and b) costs money. My mailing address is - like everyone else - my work address, for simplicity's sake. Now the really strange part is that my residential addresses for water, electricity and cable are all different. Thank Gods I didn't have to sort that stuff out from scratch, because I'm buggered if I know how to do that.

Find me on Google Earth ! Yeah, right