Big Astro

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Big Astro

The advent of the web and social media have led to a huge outpouring of enthusiasm for science but almost all sciences have skeletons in their closet, some real and some imaginary. Physicists gave us the bomb, chemists cook up the chemicals they put in the food (yes, yes, and you cheerfully drink H-2-O and breathe O-2) and even if medical researchers have doubled our lifespan many will claim they are in thrall to Big Pharma and specialise in diseases of the rich, in addition to perpetrating more specific and chilling abuses. But astronomers often sail past earthly concerns. After all, what's not to like? Astronomy generates an endless stream of stories about strange planets, unlikely stars, and the birth of the universe, but nothing anyone can easily get upset about. 

Even journalists suspend their usual rules for astronomy and other good-news science stories. Copy approval, sending sources a draft of an article for commentary and correction, is anathema to journalists on a hard news story, but I am often sent drafts "to check the details" when I talk to the media about astronomy. So perhaps this is why astronomers have been caught flat-footed by the apparently sudden eruption of protest around the Thirty Metre Telescope, or TMT. The issue is not the $1.3 billion price tag but its location at the summit of Mauna Kea, the highest peak on Hawai`i's Big Island. The problem is that while Mauna Kea is a fantastic place for astronomy (a huge mountain rising out of the Pacific Ocean; the skies above it are stable and clear) it is also sacred to many native Hawai`ians. The issues are far from straightforward, but Buzzfeed (in its new incarnation as a purveyor of long-form news) and the Huffington Post have summaries of recent events and TMT consortium has put its own response to the controversy online. However, for some astronomers it has led to the discovery that they may not always be the good guys.

While we might wish it were otherwise, astronomy is not apolitical. Science communicators (myself included) wax eloquent about space exploration, but the space race was launched by Cold War competition. Nor is the politicisation of astronomy new. The British navigator, James Cook, set sail in the Endeavour from Plymouth in 1768 to observe the transit of Venus from Tahiti, as part of a campaign to determine the overall scale of the solar system. Cook carried additional sealed orders to be opened after the transit observations were complete, which told him to continue from Tahiti on a voyage of discovery into the Pacific; part of the larger competition between European powers to explore trade-routes and acquire outposts around the world. (By many accounts, the contents of those orders were well-known around London before he sailed.) And like a modern-day space programme, Cook's voyages were a simultaneous national investment in pure science, prestige and geopolitical leverage. [And Cook and Hawaii are tightly connected – he commanded the first European ships to make landfall in Hawai'i, and was killed in a skirmish there in 1778.]

New Zealand and Hawai`i are both parts of the Polynesian world. As a New Zealander, much of the language used by the Mauna Kea protestors is familiar from local debates. From a purely linguistic perspective maunga, which is mountain in Te Reo (as the Māori language is referred to in New Zealand English), is cognate to the Hawai`ian mauna. Hawai`ian and Māori both speak of their alienation from their traditional resources by the arrival of Europeans, and their deep connection to the land. In a formal setting, a person introducing themselves in Te Reo will open by listing their whakapapa or ancestry, along with their maunga, awa (river) and moana (sea), identifying themselves both with their genealogy and their specific point of origin. 

And worldviews really do differ. If you are an astronomer or astrophysicist it is not uncommon to hear enthusiastic talk about founding "colonies" on the Moon or Mars. Obviously, the "final frontier" is genuinely unpopulated, but it is worth reflecting that colonisation is not a happy word for many of our planet's inhabitants.

No group is monolithic, and many Hawai`ians are clearly excited about the construction of the TMT. However, it is tempting for astronomers and advocates for the TMT to listen to these Hawai`ian voices, and assume that the other side is being stirred up by a few malcontents. However, from the perspective of a European New Zealander (pākehā, in the local terminology) the concerns being raised about the TMT and the use of Mauna Kea for astronomy in Hawai`i closely match those heard in discussions about the ownership and use of natural landmarks in New Zealand. 

As an astrophysicist, I hope that the TMT will be built – it is an astonishing instrument, big enough to catch the the light from the first generation of stars to be born after the Big Bang, and sharp enough to make images of planets around other suns. However, I also hope that my community can do this without riding roughshod over a people who claim Mauna Kea as their own. Whether or not this this is possible with Mauna Kea I cannot say, but simply denying the validity of these concerns is not a promising start. 


Image: Visualisation of the TMT; tmt.org

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Fire In The Sky

Fire In The Sky

Bolides are like lotteries – the chances of you winning the big prize are small, but the chances that someone, somewhere will win are pretty good. So if you missed last night's fireball, you will wait a long time before seeing another one. 

The Sand Reckoner

The Sand Reckoner

Just as scientists can explain the flocking of birds, we can also model the "flocking" of cars, exploring how patterns in traffic arise and dissipate.

What the Spacecraft Saw In The Night...

What the Spacecraft Saw In The Night...

The next batch of Planck data was released yesterday (very early in the morning here in New Zealand), and this time the big news is that Planck has accurately measured how long it took for the first stars to light up after the Big Bang. The headline story is that the dark ages – the time before stars – lasted roughly 550 million years, 100 million years longer than Planck's previous estimate. (This is a long time, but a fraction of the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang itself.)

Done and Dusted?

Done and Dusted?

When the news started to unravel, it struck me that the cosmology community was in the same position as someone waking up in an unfamiliar Las Vegas hotel room with a throbbing headache, hazy memories of the night before, and a fresh tattoo reading "r=0.2".

Friends Don't Let Friends Do H

Friends Don't Let Friends Do H

So my resolution for 2015 is this: I am going to go h-free, wherever possible. I won't use it in recommendations I write, I won't cite my own h-index in my annual performance appraisals, and I will discourage comparisons of h-indices when considering candidates for promotions, appointments and prizes.

Measurer, Measure Yourself.

Measurer, Measure Yourself.

The great Russian physicist, Lev Landau used to rank physicists on a scale from 0 to 5. The better you were, the smaller your number. Newton alone was a 0, Einstein scraped in at 0.5, and founders of quantum mechanics like Bohr and Planck were 1s. Landau rated himself a 2.5 which he bumped up to a 2 after winning the Nobel Prize.

No Rose Without a Thorn

No Rose Without a Thorn

I am still a huge fan of open science, despite the barrage of pay-to-play spam, and would love to live in a world where all scholarly publications were freely available to anyone who wants to see them. But I am beginning to think we need peer review for journals, as much as we need it for the articles within them.

Winning Bronze

Winning Bronze

Sir Robert "Bob" Jones is New Zealand's answer to Donald Trump; a wealthy property investor with a sideline as an internet and old-media troll, albeit with a better barber than The Donald. In yesterday's Herald Jones shares his opinions on which New Zealanders merit a bronze statue, and the list is very short. By Jones's reckoning, the only truly great New Zealander is Sir Edmund Hillary, who conquered Everest, crossed the Antarctic and then devoted his later life to building schools and hospitals in Nepal.

The Quintessence of Dust?

The Quintessence of Dust?

Unfortunately, once the initial excitement died away, a number of voices asked whether BICEP2's signal had a more humble origin -- dust in our own galaxy. Dust can mimic a gravitational wave signal if it interacts with the galaxy's magnetic field. From a cosmic perspective, anything inside our galaxy is a "foreground" – dirt on the window through which we peer at the microwave background, the fossil light from the big bang coming to us from the furthest reaches of space.

Reaction Shot

Reaction Shot

As Mark Twain apparently didn't say, a lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is still putting its boots on. And when that lie is powered by a breakthrough, NASA-approved space drive technology it can get to infinity and beyond, even if the truth is in hot pursuit.