Archive for May 8, 2010

Experiments and Observations

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on May 8, 2010 by telescoper

It’s nice to be able to pass on some upbeat news for once.

The first thing is that, after a lot of delays and a bit of haggling, the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University has finally issued advertisements for a bunch of new Faculty positions in Experimental Physics. The positions, which are tenured,  involve both Chair and Lecturer/Reader levels and there are several positions available. The School and University  have  put together a handsome start-up package for a new group and there’s plenty of spanking new experimental laboratory space to set up shop. Coupled with the fact that Cardiff is a great city to live in, with low costs and great sporting and cultural infrastructure, this should prove a tempting opportunity for someone to set up their own group.

It’s also a welcome vote of confidence from Cardiff University which, despite cuts in its overall budget, has decided to invest heavily in the School’s strategic plan. I hope and believe we’ll attract a strong field for these appointments and look forward to seeing what develops. We need a shot in the arm and this might just deliver it.

What’s particularly interesting about this clutch of new appointments is that they are open to people working in any area of physics, with the exception of astrophysics. Given the massive cuts in STFC’s budget, this is no time to be expanding in areas covered by its remit. I say that as an astrophysicist, with considerable regret but pragmatism in the face of the changing landscape of British science funding. In times of risk you have to broaden your portfolio. However, that’s not to say that astrophysics at Cardiff is downbeat. Far from it, in fact.

ESA held an international press conference to present exciting new results from the Herschel Observatory at the European Space Research and Technology Centre, Noordwijk, The Netherlands, on Thursday 6 May. A webcast of the press conference with Cardiff’s Professors Matt Griffin and Steve Eales taking part, can be seen at from http://www.esa.int/SPECIALS/Herschel. At the conference Steve Eales talked about the latest results from the Herschel ATLAS survey: an ATLAS of the Universe. ATLAS will cover one eightieth of the sky, four times larger than all the other Herschel surveys combined and is led by Professor Eales and Dr Loretta Dunne at Nottingham University.

Herschel ATLAS has measured the infrared light from thousands of galaxies, spread across billions of light-years. Each galaxy appears as just a pinprick but its brightness allows astronomers to determine how quickly it is forming stars. Roughly speaking, the brighter the galaxy the more stars it is forming. The Herschel images show that in the past there were many more galaxies forming stars much faster than our own Galaxy. But what triggered this frantic activity is not completely understood. Steve Eales said

every time astronomers have observed the universe in a new waveband, they have discovered something new. So as well as our regular science programmes, I am hoping for the unexpected.

I am hoping to get involved with the ATLAS data myself at some point as I am formally a member of the consortium, but I’ve been too busy doing other things to get involved in these initial stages so am not on any of the preliminary science papers. I hope I can get properly involved in this project sooner rather than later…

The ATLAS survey, image courtesy of ESA and the ATLAS consortium

The full press release also includes surprises on how stars are formed including work carried out by Cardiff’s Professor Derek Ward-Thompson. Herschel’s star formation surveys are beginning to reveal the mysteries behind how massive stars are created.