Archive for April, 2009

A funny thing happened on the way…

Posted in Columbo with tags , on April 13, 2009 by telescoper

Following yesterday’s emergency trip to the vet with Columbo, I took him back this morning. Although still very woozy from the tranquilizers he’s been having, he is much better this morning and the vet suggested no further action would be needed unless he had another episode. When the latest Diazepam wears off, hopefully he will return to some semblance of normality.

By the way, thanks for all the nice messages on here and on facebook. I really appreciate them.

While I was waiting in the reception area, a guy came in to make an appointment. When the receptionist asked what kind of animal he had, he said “Pet Sheep”. The animal concerned was waiting patiently in the back of his car.

It turns out the owner of this particularly sheep, David Palmer, is something of a celebrity and has even featured on Sky News. He found the sheep abandoned and brought it up as a pet. It lives in his house and is very tame, sitting quietly in the car while people chatted around him. It’s a substantial beast, though. Over 20 stones in fact -that’s 280lbs for any transatlantic readers.

I’ve never thought of sheep as pets. There are pet lambs on farms of course: when their mother has died or rejected them they are typically brought up by humans until they’re ready to go to market. But a full-grown sheep is a sizeable beast and, I would have thought, difficult to housetrain. Still, this one seemed quite affectionate. I asked Mr Palmer what he fed the sheep on. The answer was sprouts and carrots.

These days vets have to cope with all kinds of animals as well as the traditional cats and dogs. I’ve seen lizards, snakes, a monkey and vietnamese pig in various waiting rooms during various visits to various vets over the years.

The funniest thing I ever saw, though, wasn’t the sheep but a huge dog; a Great Dane no less. This enormous animal came  into the vet’s surgery with a little old lady in tow. She was like a character out of an old Ealing comedy and the dog was at least shoulder high to her. I thought she could probably ride around on it like a horse.

As they entered, a small dog barked and the Great Dane freaked out and started bounding around the room, knocking over a stand covered in pet treats and toys and generally causing a commotion. The old lady said “Brian! Calm down!”.

Brian. What a name for a Great Dane.

Arrows and Demons

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 12, 2009 by telescoper

My recent post about randomness and non-randomness spawned a lot of comments over on cosmic variance about the nature of entropy. I thought I’d add a bit about that topic here, mainly because I don’t really agree with most of what is written in textbooks on this subject.

The connection between thermodynamics (which deals with macroscopic quantities) and statistical mechanics (which explains these in terms of microscopic behaviour) is a fascinating but troublesome area.  James Clerk Maxwell (right) did much to establish the microscopic meaning of the first law of thermodynamics he never tried develop the second law from the same standpoint. Those that did were faced with a conundrum.  


The behaviour of a system of interacting particles, such as the particles of a gas, can be expressed in terms of a Hamiltonian H which is constructed from the positions and momenta of its constituent particles. The resulting equations of motion are quite complicated because every particle, in principle, interacts with all the others. They do, however, possess an simple yet important property. Everything is reversible, in the sense that the equations of motion remain the same if one changes the direction of time and changes the direction of motion for all the particles. Consequently, one cannot tell whether a movie of atomic motions is being played forwards or backwards.

This means that the Gibbs entropy is actually a constant of the motion: it neither increases nor decreases during Hamiltonian evolution.

But what about the second law of thermodynamics? This tells us that the entropy of a system tends to increase. Our everyday experience tells us this too: we know that physical systems tend to evolve towards states of increased disorder. Heat never passes from a cold body to a hot one. Pour milk into coffee and everything rapidly mixes. How can this directionality in thermodynamics be reconciled with the completely reversible character of microscopic physics?

The answer to this puzzle is surprisingly simple, as long as you use a sensible interpretation of entropy that arises from the idea that its probabilistic nature represents not randomness (whatever that means) but incompleteness of information. I’m talking, of course, about the Bayesian view of probability.

 First you need to recognize that experimental measurements do not involve describing every individual atomic property (the “microstates” of the system), but large-scale average things like pressure and temperature (these are the “macrostates”). Appropriate macroscopic quantities are chosen by us as useful things to use because they allow us to describe the results of experiments and measurements in a  robust and repeatable way. By definition, however, they involve a substantial coarse-graining of our description of the system.

Suppose we perform an idealized experiment that starts from some initial macrostate. In general this will generally be consistent with a number – probably a very large number – of initial microstates. As the experiment continues the system evolves along a Hamiltonian path so that the initial microstate will evolve into a definite final microstate. This is perfectly symmetrical and reversible. But the point is that we can never have enough information to predict exactly where in the final phase space the system will end up because we haven’t specified all the details of which initial microstate we were in.  Determinism does not in itself allow predictability; you need information too.

If we choose macro-variables so that our experiments are reproducible it is inevitable that the set of microstates consistent with the final macrostate will usually be larger than the set of microstates consistent with the initial macrostate, at least  in any realistic system. Our lack of knowledge means that the probability distribution of the final state is smeared out over a larger phase space volume at the end than at the start. The entropy thus increases, not because of anything happening at the microscopic level but because our definition of macrovariables requires it.


This is illustrated in the Figure. Each individual microstate in the initial collection evolves into one state in the final collection: the narrow arrows represent Hamiltonian evolution.


However, given only a finite amount of information about the initial state these trajectories can’t be as well defined as this. This requires the set of final microstates has to acquire a  sort of “buffer zone” around the strictly Hamiltonian core;  this is the only way to ensure that measurements on such systems will be reproducible.

The “theoretical” Gibbs entropy remains exactly constant during this kind of evolution, and it is precisely this property that requires the experimental entropy to increase. There is no microscopic explanation of the second law. It arises from our attempt to shoe-horn microscopic behaviour into framework furnished by macroscopic experiments.

Another, perhaps even more compelling demonstration of the so-called subjective nature of probability (and hence entropy) is furnished by Maxwell’s demon. This little imp first made its appearance in 1867 or thereabouts and subsequently led a very colourful and influential life. The idea is extremely simple: imagine we have a box divided into two partitions, A and B. The wall dividing the two sections contains a tiny door which can be opened and closed by a “demon” – a microscopic being “whose faculties are so sharpened that he can follow every molecule in its course”. The demon wishes to play havoc with the second law of thermodynamics so he looks out for particularly fast moving molecules in partition A and opens the door to allow them (and only them) to pass into partition B. He does the opposite thing with partition B, looking out for particularly sluggish molecules and opening the door to let them into partition A when they approach.

The net result of the demon’s work is that the fast-moving particles from A are preferentially moved into B and the slower particles from B are gradually moved into A. The net result is that the average kinetic energy of A molecules steadily decreases while that of B molecules increases. In effect, heat is transferred from a cold body to a hot body, something that is forbidden by the second law.

All this talk of demons probably makes this sound rather frivolous, but it is a serious paradox that puzzled many great minds. Until it was resolved in 1929 by Leo Szilard. He showed that the second law of thermodynamics would not actually be violated if entropy of the entire system (i.e. box + demon) increased by an amount every time the demon measured the speed of a molecule so he could decide whether to let it out from one side of the box into the other. This amount of entropy is precisely enough to balance the apparent decrease in entropy caused by the gradual migration of fast molecules from A into B. This illustrates very clearly that there is a real connection between the demon’s state of knowledge and the physical entropy of the system.

By now it should be clear why there is some sense of the word subjective that does apply to entropy. It is not subjective in the sense that anyone can choose entropy to mean whatever they like, but it is subjective in the sense that it is something to do with the way we manage our knowledge about nature rather than about nature itself. I know from experience, however, that many physicists feel very uncomfortable about the idea that entropy might be subjective even in this sense.

On the other hand, I feel completely comfortable about the notion:. I even think it’s obvious. To see why, consider the example I gave above about pouring milk into coffee. We are all used to the idea that the nice swirly pattern you get when you first pour the milk in is a state of relatively low entropy. The parts of the phase space of the coffee + milk system that contain such nice separations of black and white are few and far between. It’s much more likely that the system will end up as a “mixed” state. But then how well mixed the coffee is depends on your ability to resolve the size of the milk droplets. An observer with good eyesight would see less mixing than one with poor eyesight. And an observer who couldn’t perceive the difference between milk and coffee would see perfect mixing. In this case entropy, like beauty, is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

The refusal of many physicists to accept the subjective nature of entropy arises, as do so many misconceptions in physics, from the wrong view of probability.

Easter Emergency

Posted in Columbo on April 12, 2009 by telescoper

Well, this has to have been the most stressful Easter Sunday I’ve had in my whole life…

This morning, around 11.30 or so, my old cat Columbo (whose 15th birthday was on 31st March) suffered some kind of a seizure while I was sitting out in my garden reading the newspaper. It’s been warm and sunny over the holiday weekend so I’ve been trying to make the most of it, including having breakfast al fresco.

Columbo suddenly had a funny turn, cried out and then simultaneously evacuated bowels and bladder onto the garden path.  He staggered off into the house, alternately mewing and hissing, and proceeded to half-pace half-crawl around from room to room. Hoping he would settle down in due course, I just kept an eye on him and tried to let him find somewhere comfortable to recover from whatever bad thing had happened to him. He  didn’t seem to recognize me or the house he was in.

After about an hour of this, I gave up and called the emergency line and the vet. Such things always seem to happen during holidays when the vets are closed. Anyway, I managed to persuade the vet on the other end of the line that it was indeed an emergency, and rushed the sick moggy there in a taxi. The emergency vet arrived and opened up the clinic about ten minutes later.

Columbo hadn’t really improved in the meantime and he behaved very strangely in the vets, pacing around the examination table and sniffing everything repeatedly. The vet examined him thoroughly, including testing his eyes. It appeared that he had lost most of his vision, probably very suddenly, and although he wasn’t completely blind this could account for his disorientation and obvious discomfort and stress.

There could be a variety of causes of such a seizure for an old cat (stroke, toxic shock, neurological disease, etc) but the vet pronounced it unlikely to be directly connected to his diabetes as all the signs suggested a neurological problem. He had probably lost his faculties when whatever it was happened, and evidently lost control in  other ways too.

After lengthy consultations she (the vet) gave him a series of injections including antibiotics, an anti-inflammatory drug, and a sedative to try to calm him down a little.  She also gave me three diazepam tablets – which I initially thought were for me, as I was panicky too – in case he needed something later on to help him sleep. I was going to suggest that Mog-adon might be better but thought better of it.

It was clear that Columbo had experienced something that had completely deranged his mind, left him unable to see things properly, and put him into a state where he hadn’t the faintest idea where he was. The poor thing was obviously terribly frightened and confused. I think the vet knew that I knew how serious this could be and what I would have to do if the situation didn’t improve. I couldn’t allow him to suffer like that indefinitely.

But, the vet said, take him home, give him some rest, see if he’ll take food and bring him back tomorrow. We’ll see what state he’s in then.

So then I got him home. He carried on as before for about an hour and then either the sedative took effect or he was just knackered, so he climbed into his basket and went to sleep. I had some work to do so I left him on his own for a couple of hours, closing the kitchen door to give him some quiet. All the time I was thinking about soon having to make the decision to have him put down so I didn’t concentrate on my work at all well.

Eventually I went into the kitchen, where his basket is. I half-expected to find him dead. But as soon as I opened the door he climbed out of the basket and came directly to me. Clearly he was regaining some idea of where he was and could even see me. He purred when I reached down to stroke him. I went into the kitchen and he followed, still a bit groggy, but much better than before. I tried him with a bit of food and he wolfed it down quite happily before plodding off back to his basket. Not 100% by any means, but much better than the state he was in a few hours before.

So that’s where the story is so far. With  Columbo tucking in, I realized I hadn’t eaten a thing since breakfast so I’m warming something up now as I write this. I think I could do with a drink too.

For the time being, the emergency appears to be over, but we’ll see how he gets on at the vets tomorrow.

Easter Physics Quiz

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on April 10, 2009 by telescoper

Over the Easter holidays the newspapers seem to be full of quizzes and other distractions, so I thought I’d join in with a little quiz of my own.

So for a negligible prize can anyone point out the mathematical connection between these two pictures?








Answers via the comments box please.

Full Blast

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 9, 2009 by telescoper

Yesterday, Paolo Calisse and I were paid a visit by a reporter (Martin Shipton) and a photographer from Welsh newspaper The Western Mail who wanted to cover the sad story of Clover.

Paolo is heavily involved with Clover, but I was a bit hesitant about doing this because I’m not really part of the Clover team. Paolo suggested it might be an advantage that I wasn’t so directly involved as I might be able to give a more balanced view of the importance of the experiment than him. Anyway, the story came out today in the newspaper and is available online too.

DrThis is the picture they took of me and Paolo in the Clover lab, fiddling with the cryostat. I’ve already had my leg pulled enough about pretending to be an instrumentalist for the photograph so no jokes please…





In the same issue of the paper there is another feature about Cardiff’s astronomy research, concerning BLAST (Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimetre Telescope). This is a much happier story, as it marks the release of results from a highly successful science run from 2006. In the print version of the Western Mail the two stories were run on the same page, one above the other, making very effectively the point that cutting the funding of the Astronomy Instrumentation Group jeopardizes a great deal of world-leading research besides Clover itself. And when I say “world-leading” I mean it, whatever the RAE panel might have thought.

A deluge of articles about BLAST appeared on the arXiv today, one of which is now published in Nature. I thought I’d put up the abstracts here in order to draw attention to these results. The author lists contain many Cardiff authors and, as you’ll see, the results are both fascinating and wide-ranging. I’ve put links to the arXiv after each abstract:

Title: BLAST: Correlations in the Cosmic Far-Infrared Background at 250, 350, and 500 microns Reveal Clustering of Star-Forming Galaxies

Authors: Marco P. Viero, Peter A. R. Ade, James J. Bock, Edward L. Chapin, Mark J. Devlin, Matthew Griffin, Joshua O. Gundersen, Mark Halpern, Peter C. Hargrave, David H. Hughes, Jeff Klein, Carrie J. MacTavish, Gaelen Marsden, Peter G. Martin, Philip Mauskopf, Lorenzo Moncelsi, Mattia Negrello, Calvin B. Netterfield, Luca Olmi, Enzo Pascale, Guillaume Patanchon, Marie Rex, Douglas Scott, Christopher Semisch, Nicholas Thomas, Matthew D. P. Truch, Carole Tucker, Gregory S. Tucker, Donald V. Wiebe

We detect correlations in the cosmic far-infrared background due to the clustering of star-forming galaxies, in observations made with the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST), at 250, 350, and 500 microns. Since the star-forming galaxies which make up the far-infrared background are expected to trace the underlying dark matter in a biased way, measuring clustering in the far infrared background provides a way to relate star formation directly to structure formation. We test the plausibility of the result by fitting a simple halo model to the data. We derive an effective bias b_eff = 2.2 +/- 0.2, effective mass log(M_eff/M_sun) = 13.2 (+0.3/-0.8), and minimum mass log(M_min/M_sun) = 9.9 (+1.5/-1.7). This is the first robust clustering measurement at submillimeter wavelengths.

Title: Over half of the far-infrared background light comes from galaxies at z >= 1.2

Authors: Mark J. Devlin, Peter A. R. Ade, Itziar Aretxaga, James J. Bock, Edward L. Chapin, Matthew Griffin, Joshua O. Gundersen, Mark Halpern, Peter C. Hargrave, David H. Hughes, Jeff Klein, Gaelen Marsden, Peter G. Martin, Philip Mauskopf, Lorenzo Moncelsi, Calvin B. Netterfield, Henry Ngo, Luca Olmi, Enzo Pascale, Guillaume Patanchon, Marie Rex, Douglas Scott, Christopher Semisch, Nicholas Thomas, Matthew D. P. Truch, Carole Tucker, Gregory S. Tucker, Marco P. Viero, Donald V. Wiebe

Journal-ref: Nature, vol. 458, 737-739 (2009) DOI: 10.1038/nature07918

Submillimetre surveys during the past decade have discovered a population of luminous, high-redshift, dusty starburst galaxies. In the redshift range 1 <= z <= 4, these massive submillimetre galaxies go through a phase characterized by optically obscured star formation at rates several hundred times that in the local Universe. Half of the starlight from this highly energetic process is absorbed and thermally re-radiated by clouds of dust at temperatures near 30 K with spectral energy distributions peaking at 100 microns in the rest frame. At 1 <= z <= 4, the peak is redshifted to wavelengths between 200 and 500 microns. The cumulative effect of these galaxies is to yield extragalactic optical and far-infrared backgrounds with approximately equal energy densities. Since the initial detection of the far-infrared background (FIRB), higher-resolution experiments have sought to decompose this integrated radiation into the contributions from individual galaxies. Here we report the results of an extragalactic survey at 250, 350 and 500 microns. Combining our results at 500 microns with those at 24 microns, we determine that all of the FIRB comes from individual galaxies, with galaxies at z >= 1.2 accounting for 70 per cent of it. As expected, at the longest wavelengths the signal is dominated by ultraluminous galaxies at z > 1.

Title: The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST) 2006:
Calibration and Flight Performance

Authors: Matthew D. P. Truch, Peter A. R. Ade, James J. Bock, Edward L. Chapin, Mark J. Devlin, Simon R. Dicker, Matthew Griffin, Joshua O. Gundersen, Mark Halpern, Peter C. Hargrave, David H. Hughes, Jeff Klein, Gaelen Marsden, Peter G. Martin, Philip Mauskopf, Lorenzo Moncelsi, Calvin B. Netterfield, Luca Olmi, Enzo Pascale, Guillaume Patanchon, Marie Rex, Douglas Scott, Christopher Semisch, Nicholas E. Thomas, Carole Tucker, Gregory S. Tucker, Marco P. Viero, Donald V. Wiebe

The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST) operated successfully during a 250-hour flight over Antarctica in December 2006 (BLAST06). As part of the calibration and pointing procedures, the red hypergiant star VY CMa was observed and used as the primary calibrator. Details of the overall BLAST06 calibration procedure are discussed. The 1-sigma absolute calibration is accurate to 10, 12, and 13% at the 250, 350, and 500 micron bands, respectively. The errors are highly correlated between bands
resulting in much lower error for the derived shape of the 250-500 micron continuum. The overall pointing error is <5″ rms for the 36, 42, and 60″ beams. The performance of the optics and pointing systems is discussed.

Title: A Bright Submillimeter Source in the Bullet Cluster (1E0657–56) Field Detected with BLAST

Authors: Marie Rex, Peter A. R. Ade, Itziar Aretxaga, James J. Bock, Edward L. Chapin, Mark J. Devlin, Simon R. Dicker, Matthew Griffin, Joshua O. Gundersen, Mark Halpern, Peter C. Hargrave, David H. Hughes, Jeff Klein, Gaelen Marsden, Peter G. Martin, Philip Mauskopf, Calvin B. Netterfield, Luca Olmi, Enzo Pascale, Guillaume Patanchon, Douglas Scott, Christopher Semisch, Nicholas Thomas, Matthew D. P. Truch, Carole Tucker, Gregory S. Tucker, Marco P. Viero, Donald V. Wiebe

We present the 250, 350, and 500 micron detection of bright submillimeter emission in the direction of the Bullet Cluster measured by the Balloon-borne Large-Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST). The 500 micron centroid is coincident with an AzTEC 1.1 millimeter detection at a position close to the peak lensing magnification produced by the cluster. However, the 250 micron and 350 micron emission is resolved and elongated, with centroid positions shifted toward the south of the AzTEC source and a differential shift between bands that cannot be explained by pointing uncertainties. We therefore conclude that the BLAST detection is contaminated by emission from foreground galaxies associated with the Bullet Cluster. The submillimeter redshift estimate based on 250-1100 micron photometry at the position of the AzTEC source is z_phot = 2.9 (+0.6/-0.3), consistent with the infrared color redshift estimation of the most likely Spitzer IRAC counterpart. These flux densities indicate an apparent far-infrared luminosity of L_FIR = 2E13 L_sun. When the amplification due to the gravitational lensing of the cluster is removed, the intrinsic far-infrared luminosity of the source is found to be L_FIR <= 1E12 L_sun, consistent with typical luminous infrared galaxies.

Title: Radio and mid-infrared identification of BLAST source counterparts in the Chandra Deep Field South

Authors: Simon Dye, Peter A. R. Ade, James J. Bock, Edward L. Chapin, Mark J. Devlin, James S. Dunlop, Stephen A. Eales, Matthew Griffin, Joshua O. Gundersen, Mark Halpern, Peter C. Hargrave, David H. Hughes, Jeff Klein, Gaelen Marsden, Philip Mauskopf, Lorenzo Moncelsi, Calvin B. Netterfield, Luca Olmi, Enzo Pascale, Guillaume Patanchon, Marie Rex, Douglas Scott, Christopher Semisch, Nicholas Thomas, Matthew D. P. Truch, Carole Tucker, Gregory S. Tucker, Marco P. Viero, Donald V. Wiebe

We have identified radio and/or mid-infrared counterparts to 198 out of 351 sources detected at >= 5 sigma over ~ 9 sq. degrees centered on the Chandra Deep Field South (CDFS) by the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST) at 250, 350, and 500 microns. We have matched 92 of these counterparts to optical sources with previously derived photometric redshifts and fitted SEDs to the BLAST fluxes and fluxes at 70 and 160 microns acquired with the Spitzer Space Telescope. In this way, we have constrained dust temperatures, total far-infrared/submillimeter luminosities and star formation rates for each source. Our findings show that the BLAST sources lie at significantly lower redshifts and have significantly lower rest-frame dust temperatures compared to submm sources detected in surveys conducted at 850 microns. We demonstrate that an apparent increase in dust temperature with redshift in our sample arises as a result of selection effects. This paper
constitutes the public release of the multi-wavelength catalog of >= 5 sigma BLAST sources contained within the full ~ 9 sq. degree survey area.

Title: BLAST: Resolving the Cosmic Submillimeter Background

Authors: Gaelen Marsden, Peter A. R. Ade, James J. Bock, Edward L. Chapin, Mark J. Devlin, Simon R. Dicker, Matthew Griffin, Joshua O. Gundersen, Mark Halpern, Peter C. Hargrave, David H. Hughes, Jeff Klein, Philip Mauskopf, Benjamin Magnelli, Lorenzo Moncelsi, Calvin B. Netterfield, Henry Ngo, Luca Olmi, Enzo Pascale, Guillaume Patanchon, Marie Rex, Douglas Scott, Christopher Semisch, Nicholas Thomas, Matthew D. P. Truch, Carole Tucker, Gregory S. Tucker, Marco P. Viero, Donald V. Wiebe

The Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST) has made one square-degree, deep, confusion-limited maps at three different bands, centered on the Great Observatories Origins Deep Survey South field. By calculating the covariance of these maps with catalogs of 24 micron sources from the Far-Infrared Deep Extragalactic Legacy Survey (FIDEL), we have determined that the total submillimeter intensities are 8.60 +/- 0.59, 4.93 +/- 0.34, and 2.27 +/- 0.20 nW m^-2 sr^-1 at 250, 350, and 500 microns, respectively. These numbers are more precise than previous estimates of the cosmic infrared background (CIB) and are consistent with 24 micron-selected galaxies generating the full intensity of the CIB. We find that more than half of the CIB originates from sources at z >= 1.2. At all BLAST wavelengths, the relative intensity of high-z sources is higher for 24 micron-faint sources than it is for 24 micron-bright sources. Galaxies identified very broadly as AGN by their Spitzer Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) colors contribute 32-48% of the CIB, although X-ray-selected AGN contribute only 7%. BzK-selected galaxies are found to be brighter than typical 24 micron-selected galaxies in the BLAST bands, and contribute 32-42% of the CIB. These data provide high-precision constraints for models of the evolution of the number density and intensity of star-forming galaxies at high redshift.

Title: BLAST: A Far-Infrared Measurement of the History of Star Formation

Authors: Enzo Pascale, Peter A. R. Ade, James J. Bock, Edward L. Chapin, Mark J. Devlin, Simon Dye, Steve A. Eales, Matthew Griffin, Joshua O. Gundersen, Mark Halpern, Peter C. Hargrave, David H. Hughes, Jeff Klein, Gaelen Marsden, Philip Mauskopf, Lorenzo Moncelsi, Calvin B. Netterfield, Luca Olmi, Guillaume Patanchon, Marie Rex, Douglas Scott, Christopher Semisch, Nicholas Thomas, Matthew D. P. Truch, Carole Tucker, Gregory S. Tucker, Marco P. Viero, Donald V. Wiebe

We use measurements from the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Sub-millimeter Telescope (BLAST) at wavelengths spanning 250 to 500 microns, combined with data from the Spitzer Infrared telescope and ground-based optical surveys in GOODS-S, to determine the average star formation rate of the galaxies that comprise the cosmic infrared background (CIB) radiation from 70 to 500 microns, at redshifts 0 < z < 3. We find that different redshifts are preferentially probed at different wavelengths within this range, with most of the 70 micron background generated at z < ~1 and the 500 micron background generated at z >~1. The spectral coverage of BLAST and Spitzer in the region of the peak of the background at ~200 microns allows us to directly estimate the mean physical properties (temperature, bolometric luminosity and mass) of the dust in the galaxies responsible for contributing more than 80% of the CIB. By utilizing available redshift information we directly measure the evolution of the far infrared luminosity density and therefore the optically obscured star formation history up to redshift z ~3.

Title: BLAST: The Mass Function, Lifetimes, and Properties of Intermediate Mass Cores from a 50 Square Degree Submillimeter Galactic Survey in Vela (l = ~265)

Authors: Calvin. B. Netterfield, Peter A. R. Ade, James J. Bock, Edward L. Chapin, Mark J. Devlin, Matthew Griffin, Joshua O. Gundersen, Mark Halpern, Peter C. Hargrave, David H. Hughes, Jeff Klein, Gaelen Marsden, Peter G. Martin, Phillip Mauskopf, Luca Olmi, Enzo Pascale, Guillaume Patanchon, Marie Rex, Arabindo Roy, Douglas Scott, Christopher Semisch, Nicholas Thomas, Matthew D. P. Truch, Carole Tucker, Gregory S. Tucker, Marco P. Viero, Donald V. Wiebe

We present first results from an unbiased, 50 square degree submillimeter Galactic survey at 250, 350, and 500 microns from the 2006 flight of the Balloon-borne Large Aperture Submillimeter Telescope (BLAST). The map has resolution ranging from 36″ to 60″ in the three submillimeter bands spanning the thermal emission peak of cold starless cores. We determine the temperature, luminosity, and mass of more than a thousand compact sources in a range of evolutionary stages and an unbiased statistical characterization of the population. From comparison with C^18 O data, we find the dust opacity per gas mass, kappa/R = 0.16 cm^2/g at 250 microns, for cold clumps. We find that 2% of the mass of the molecular gas over this diverse region is in cores colder than 14 K, and that the mass function for these cold cores is consistent with a power law with index alpha = -3.22 +/- 0.14 over the mass range 14 M_sun < M < 80 M_sun, steeper than the Salpeter alpha = -2.35 initial massfunction for stars. Additionally, we infer a mass dependent cold core lifetime of tau(M) = 4E6 (M/20 M_sun)^-0.9 years — longer than what has been found in previous surveys of either low or high mass cores, and significantly longer than free fall or turbulent decay time scales. This implies some form of non-thermal support for cold cores during this early stage of star formation.

You can find a lot more detailed information on the dedicated BLAST website.

Tommy Flanagan

Posted in Jazz with tags , on April 8, 2009 by telescoper

I’ve only got time for a quick post today so I thought I’d put up a clip of someone I think is one of the most consistently enjoyable but underrated Jazz pianists of all time. He was probably best known as the long-time accompanist of Ella Fitzgerald but he also played on a number of really important Jazz albums with Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, to name just two. He also loved to play within the classic Jazz trio format of piano, bass and drums as represented here.

This is the marvellous Tommy Flanagan playing yet another tune by the great Billy Strayhorn; this one’s called Raincheck.

Statistics Matters, Science Matters

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on April 7, 2009 by telescoper

I thought I’d say something about why I think statistics and statistical reasoning are so important. Of course they are important in science. In fact, I think they lie at the very core of the scientific method, although I am still surprised how few practising scientists are comfortable even with statistical language. A more important problem is the popular impression that science is about facts and absolute truths. It isn’t. It’s a process. In order to advance it has to question itself.

Statistical reasoning also applies to many facets of everyday life, including business, commerce, transport, the media, and politics. Probability even plays a role in personal relationships, though mostly at a subconscious level. It is a feature of everyday life that science and technology are deeply embedded in every aspect of what we do each day. Science has given us greater levels of comfort, better health care, and a plethora of labour-saving devices. It has also given us unprecedented ability to destroy the environment and each other, whether through accident or design.

Civilized societies face rigorous challenges in this century. We must confront the threat of climate change and forthcoming energy crises. We must find better ways of resolving conflicts peacefully lest nuclear or conventional weapons lead us to global catastrophe. We must stop large-scale pollution or systematic destruction of the biosphere that nurtures us. And we must do all of these things without abandoning the many positive things that science has brought us. Abandoning science and rationality by retreating into religious or political fundamentalism would be a catastrophe for humanity.

Unfortunately, recent decades have seen a wholesale breakdown of trust between scientists and the public at large. This is due partly to the deliberate abuse of science for immoral purposes, and partly to the sheer carelessness with which various agencies have exploited scientific discoveries without proper evaluation of the risks involved. The abuse of statistical arguments have undoubtedly contributed to the suspicion with which many individuals view science.

There is an increasing alienation between scientists and the general public. Many fewer students enrol for courses in physics and chemistry than a a few decades ago. Fewer graduates mean fewer qualified science teachers in schools. This is a vicious cycle that threatens our future. It must be broken.

The danger is that the decreasing level of understanding of science in society means that knowledge (as well as its consequent power) becomes concentrated in the minds of a few individuals. This could have dire consequences for the future of our democracy. Even as things stand now, very few Members of Parliament are scientifically literate. How can we expect to control the application of science when the necessary understanding rests with an unelected “priesthood” that is hardly understood by, or represented in, our democratic institutions?

Very few journalists or television producers know enough about science to report sensibly on the latest discoveries or controversies. As a result, important matters that the public needs to know about do not appear at all in the media, or if they do it is in such a garbled fashion that they do more harm than good.

Years ago I used to listen to radio interviews with scientists on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I even did such an interview once. It is a deeply frustrating experience. The scientist usually starts by explaining what the discovery is about in the way a scientist should, with careful statements of what is assumed, how the data is interpreted, and what other possible interpretations might be and the likely sources of error. The interviewer then loses patience and asks for a yes or no answer. The scientist tries to continue, but is badgered. Either the interview ends as a row, or the scientist ends up stating a grossly oversimplified version of the story.

Some scientists offer the oversimplified version at the outset, of course, and these are the ones that contribute to the image of scientists as priests. Such individuals often believe in their theories in exactly the same way that some people believe religiously. Not with the conditional and possibly temporary belief that characterizes the scientific method, but with the unquestioning fervour of an unthinking zealot. This approach may pay off for the individual in the short term, in popular esteem and media recognition – but when it goes wrong it is science as a whole that suffers. When a result that has been proclaimed certain is later shown to be false, the result is widespread disillusionment.

The worst example of this tendency that I can think of is the constant use of the phrase “Mind of God” by theoretical physicists to describe fundamental theories. This is not only meaningless but also damaging. As scientists we should know better than to use it. Our theories do not represent absolute truths: they are just the best we can do with the available data and the limited powers of the human mind. We believe in our theories, but only to the extent that we need to accept working hypotheses in order to make progress. Our approach is pragmatic rather than idealistic. We should be humble and avoid making extravagant claims that can’t be justified either theoretically or experimentally.

The more that people get used to the image of “scientist as priest” the more dissatisfied they are with real science. Most of the questions asked of scientists simply can’t be answered with “yes” or “no”. This leaves many with the impression that science is very vague and subjective. The public also tend to lose faith in science when it is unable to come up with quick answers. Science is a process, a way of looking at problems not a list of ready-made answers to impossible problems. Of course it is sometimes vague, but I think it is vague in a rational way and that’s what makes it worthwhile. It is also the reason why science has led to so many objectively measurable advances in our understanding of the World.

I don’t have any easy answers to the question of how to cure this malaise, but do have a few suggestions. It would be easy for a scientist such as myself to blame everything on the media and the education system, but in fact I think the responsibility lies mainly with ourselves. We are usually so obsessed with our own research, and the need to publish specialist papers by the lorry-load in order to advance our own careers that we usually spend very little time explaining what we do to the public or why.

I think every working scientist in the country should be required to spend at least 10% of their time working in schools or with the general media on “outreach”, including writing blogs like this. People in my field – astronomers and cosmologists – do this quite a lot, but these are areas where the public has some empathy with what we do. If only biologists, chemists, nuclear physicists and the rest were viewed in such a friendly light. Doing this sort of thing is not easy, especially when it comes to saying something on the radio that the interviewer does not want to hear. Media training for scientists has been a welcome recent innovation for some branches of science, but most of my colleagues have never had any help at all in this direction.

The second thing that must be done is to improve the dire state of science education in schools. Over the last two decades the national curriculum for British schools has been dumbed down to the point of absurdity. Pupils that leave school at 18 having taken “Advanced Level” physics do so with no useful knowledge of physics at all, even if they have obtained the highest grade. I do not at all blame the students for this; they can only do what they are asked to do. It’s all the fault of the educationalists, who have done the best they can for a long time to convince our young people that science is too hard for them. Science can be difficult, of course, and not everyone will be able to make a career out of it. But that doesn’t mean that it should not be taught properly to those that can take it in. If some students find it is not for them, then so be it. I always wanted to be a musician, but never had the talent for it.

I realise I must sound very gloomy about this, but I do think there are good prospects that the gap between science and society may gradually be healed. The fact that the public distrust scientists leads many of them to question us, which is a very good thing. They should question us and we should be prepared to answer them. If they ask us why, we should be prepared to give reasons. If enough scientists engage in this process then what will emerge is and understanding of the enduring value of science. I don’t just mean through the DVD players and computer games science has given us, but through its cultural impact. It is part of human nature to question our place in the Universe, so science is part of what we are. It gives us purpose. But it also shows us a way of living our lives. Except for a few individuals, the scientific community is tolerant, open, internationally-minded, and imbued with a philosophy of cooperation. It values reason and looks to the future rather than the past. Like anyone else, scientists will always make mistakes, but we can always learn from them. The logic of science may not be infallible, but it’s probably the best logic there is in a world so filled with uncertainty.