Planck (but only in name?)

First, a serious announcement. It appears that the announcement of results from the Planck Mission will be streamed live from ESA HQ on 21st March from 10.00 to 12.00 CET (whatever that is). The UK will remain on GMT until 31st March so the  ESA web server will probably crash at 9am British time on 21st March.

There’s a short press release making this announcement here. It says:

On Thursday 21 March 2013, the main scientific findings from the European Space Agency’s Planck spacecraft will be announced at a press briefing to be held at ESA’s Headquarter in Paris. Simultaneously with this event, data products and scientific papers based on the “nominal” operations period will be made public through the Planck Legacy Archive.

I was interested in the appearance of the word “nominal” in quotes in there so I searched for its meaning in the One True Chambers Dictionary, where I found:

nominal, adj relating to or of the nature of a name or noun; of names; by name; only in name; so-called, but not in reality; inconsiderable, small, minor, in comparison with the real value, hardly more than a matter of form…

Interesting. It seems that the “nominal” could mean, on the one hand, that ESA are being unusually modest about the importance of the forthcoming Planck results or, on the other, that there will now be a host of conspiracy theorists suggesting that the Planck results aren’t real….

That reminds me that years and years ago I had an idea for a crime novel with a plot that revolves around the murder of a prominent cosmologist just as some important scientific discovery is about to be announced. Suspicion gathers that the whole thing is an enormous hoax and the discovery bogus. But the experiment is shrouded in secrecy, and so expensive that it can’t easily be repeated, so  who can tell, and how?

It’s very difficult to know for sure whether any scientific discoveries are genuine or not, even if the data and analysis procedures are made public. There’s always the possibility that everything might have been fabricated simulated, but in most cases the experiment can be repeated at a later date and the fraud eventually exposed, such as in the Schön Scandal.  In Big Science, this may not be practicable. However, Big Science requires big teams of people and the chances are someone would blow the whistle, or try to…

Anyway, I know that there are people out there who take everything I write on this blog absurdly literally so I’ll spell it out that I am in no way suggesting that the Planck mission is a fraud. Or predicting that there’ll be a murder just before the announcements on March 21st. Any similarity purely coincidental and all that. And I’ve never had time to write the book anyway – perhaps a publisher might read this and offer me an advance as an incentive?

Moreover, going back to the Chambers Dictionary, I note the final definition omitted above

…according to plan (space flight)

So that’s that. Nothing sinister. I’m not sure how “nominal” acquired that meaning, mind you, but that’s another story…

10 Responses to “Planck (but only in name?)”

  1. Reading it, it simply ounded like the word “nominal” applied to the operations period and not the results. I would take that to mean something like a timeline proposed in the Blue Book and to funding agencies, even though in practice PLANCK may have (and in future) run for longer periods of time and be of much greater value. Thus, it seemed to imply that the data products over that nominal period are being made public, but they will not be releasing similar products relating to the observations outside of that time window. I do find the quotation marks superfluous, but I am always confused about punctuation.

  2. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Quite a jazz-influenced post, Peter :-)

    In this instance, “nominal” refers to the fact that the Planck cosmology results to be released on March 21 have been derived from the data obtained during the first 15.5 months of the mission, i.e. the first two all-sky surveys. That was the baseline mission duration and thus the basis for this moment in the agreed plan of data releases.

    In the meantime, of course, Planck has continued operations for much longer, with the High Frequency Instrument clocking up a total of a five sky surveys before warming up, and the Low Frequency Instrument continuing until it has eight sky surveys done later this year.

    As a consequence, there will be additional data releases over the coming couple of years and, given that systematics are a key factor in CMB measurements, there should be much still to come from Planck even after March 21.

    That’s not to say, however, that the March 21 release can be described as “inconsiderable, small, minor, in comparison with the real value, hardly more than a matter of form”, we hope ;-)

    As for “ESA being unusually modest”, are you sure you’re not confusing your space agencies … ?

    Finally, CET = Central European Time, Peter, i.e. the clock we follow over here on the landmass to the east of you. We’ll do our best to keep the servers going.

    • telescoper Says:

      Thank you, that clarifies the situation.

      But how was it a jazz influenced post?

      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        Philip has read my intentions perfectly :-)

      • Maybe just a tongue-in-cheek remark. But maybe, like Bird playing the changes, you start with some familiar ground, then cast it in a different light, then go off to some unexpected territory before returning back to base with an unexpected twist.

        Some literary critics have compared Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger to a sonata.

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m flattered, but it’s probably true that my posts are quite improvisational because I tend to write the first thing that comes into my head, taking a lead from some theme that arises. That’s also my excuse for hitting the wrong notes sometimes, but if I did it any other way blogging would just take up too much time!

  3. Your “idea for a crime novel” bears some resemblence to
    “The Joshua Factor”, by [the well-known stellar-evolution researcher] Donald D. Clayton (Texas Monthly Press, 1986).
    I think it’s a fairly good novel. The plot centers on a murder/sabotage at a thinly disguised version of Ray Davis’s solar neutrino observatory, which turns out to be related to an impending mideast war.

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