Archive for Herschel

Among the Crachach

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on June 6, 2010 by telescoper

Catching up on the news by looking through my copy of last week’s Times Higher, I came across an account of a speech made by Welsh Assembly Minister Leighton Andrews about the Future of Higher Education in Wales. I mentioned this was coming up in an earlier post about the state of the Welsh university system, but wasn’t able to attend the lecture. Fortunately, however the text of the lecture is available for download here.

There is some discussion of positives  in the speech, including a specific enthusiastic mention of

the involvement of the School of Physics and Astronomy in the international consortium which built the Herschel Space Observatory.

I was pleased to see that, especially since much of the rest of it is extremely confrontational. Much of it focusses on the results of a recent study by accountants PriceWaterhouseCooper that revealed, among other things, that  52% of the funding provided by the Welsh Assembly Government for higher education goes on adminstration and support services, with only 48% to teaching and research. Mr Andrews suggests that about 20% of the overall budget could be saved by reducing duplication and introducing shared services across the sector.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the actual figures in the report, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were correct.  They might shock outsiders to the modern higher education system but most universities – not just those in Wales – seem to employ at least as many administrative staff and support staff as “front-line” teachers and researchers. I’m likewise sure that the Welsh Assembly employs many more such staff than there are Members…

Within academic Schools we need to employ staff to handle financial matters, student records, recruitment, admissions,  and general day-to-day administration. On top of that we have technical staff, to support both research and teaching laboratories as well as computing support staff. Add them all together and you definitely have a number comparable to the number of academic staff,  but  they don’t account for 52% of our salary bill because they are generally paid less than lecturers and professors. The mix in our School is no doubt related to the specific demands of physics and astronomy, but these staff all provide essential services and if they weren’t there, the academic staff would have to spend an even greater part of their time doing such things themselves.

As well as the staff working in individual Schools there are central administrative departments (in Cardiff they’re called “directorates”) which don’t employ academics at all. I have no idea what fraction of Cardiff’s budget goes on these things, but I suspect it’s  a big slice. My own anecdotal experience is that some of these are helpful and efficient while others specialise in creating meaningless bureaucratic tasks for academic staff to waste their time doing. I think such areas are where 20% savings might be achievable, but that would depend on the University having fewer and less complicated “initiatives” to respond to from the WAG.

The Times Higher story discusses the (not entirely favourable) reaction from various quarters to Mr Andrews speech, so I won’t go into it in any more detail here.

However, I was intrigued by one word I found in the following paragraph

 I was interested to learn recently that some members of university governing bodies have been appointed on the basis of a phone call. Who you know not what you know. It appears that HE governance in post devolution Wales has become the last resting place of the crachach.

Crachach? Being illiterate in the Welsh language this was a new one on me. However, I found an article on the BBC Website  that revealed all.

The term used to denote local gentry but 21st century crachach is the Taffia, the largely Welsh-speaking elite who dominate the arts, culture and media of Wales and to a lesser extent its political life.

It goes onto say

The Vale, Pontcanna and Whitchurch are crachach property hotspots while barn conversions in Llandeilo and cottages in Newport, Pembrokeshire, provide weekend retreats.

Hang on. Pontcanna? That’s where I live! I wonder if they let foreigners join the crachach, provided of course they learn the Welsh language? I note however that “arts culture and the media” is their remit, so science apparently doesn’t count. Perhaps I could start a scientific wing? Maybe those Welsh lessons will be useful after all. I’m told that the crachach always manage to get tickets for the big rugby matches…

On a more serious note, however, that part of Leighton Andrews’ speech stressed the importance of university governance. If he’s true to his word he should look into the Mark Brake affair. I think the taxpayers of Wales have a right to know what’s been going on.

Clustering in the Deep

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 27, 2010 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick lunchtime post about the results that have come out concerning the clustering of galaxies found by the HerMES collaboration using the Herschel Telescope. There’s quite a lengthy press release accompanying the new results, and there’s not much point in repeating the details here, so I’ll just show a wonderful image showing thousands of galaxies and their far-infrared colours.

Image Credit: European Space Agency, SPIRE and HERMES consortia

According to the press release, this looks “like grains of sand”. I wonder if whoever wrote the text was deliberately referring to Genesis 22:17?

.. they shall multiply as the stars of the heaven, and as the grains of sand upon the sea shore.

However, let me take issue a little with the following excerpt from said press release:

While at a first glance the galaxies look to be scattered randomly over the image, in fact they are not. A closer look will reveals that there are regions which have more galaxies in, and regions that have fewer.

A while ago I posted an item asking what “scattered randomly” is meant to mean. It included this picture

This is what a randomly-scattered set of points actually looks like. You’ll see that it also has some regions with more galaxies in them than others. Coincidentally, I showed the same  picture again this morning in one of my postgraduate lectures on statistics and a majority of the class – as I’m sure do many of you seeing it for the first time –  thought it showed a clustered pattern. Whatever “randomness” means precisely, the word certainly implies some sort of variation whereas the press release implies the opposite. I think a little re-wording might be in order.

What galaxy clustering statistics reveal is that the variation in density from place-to-place is greater than that expected in a random distribution like that shown. This has been known since the 1960s, so it’s not  the result that these sources are clustered that’s so important. In fact, The preliminary clustering results from the HerMES surveys – described in a little more detail in a short paper available on the arXIv – are especially  interesting because they show that some of the galaxies seen in this deep field are extremely bright (in the far-infrared), extremely distant, high-redshift objects which exhibit strong spatial correlations. The statistical form of this clustering provides very useful input for theorists trying to model the processes of galaxy formation and evolution.In particular, the brightest objects at high redshift have a propensity to appear preferentially in dense concentrations, making them even more strongly clustered than rank-and-file galaxies. This fact probably contains important information about the environmental factors responsible for driving their enormous luminosities.

The results are still preliminary, but we’re starting to see concrete evidence of the impact Herschel is going to have on extragalactic astrophysics.

Herschel’s First Year in Space

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 14, 2010 by telescoper

Just about to journey to the RAS for the Annual General Meeting  and the last club dinner before the summer break, I’m reminded by a tweet from Chris North that it’s exactly a year since we gathered nervously, fortified by booze, to watch the launch of the far-infrared observatory Herschel, together with its sister spacecraft Planck.  I haven’t got time to write much about this because I’ve got a train to catch, but you can in any case find a nice retrospective of the Herschel’s first year in space here. I couldn’t resist, however, putting up the nice video that’s been put together by the European Space Agency to mark the anniversary.

It’s all  been going swimmingly on the Herschel front since the launch, and the first science papers have been making their way onto the ArXiv this week. Thankfully it’s not been quite the deluge that I’d feared, more of a steady stream. I’ve even had a chance to read a few of them.

The next major milestone coming up will be announcement of opportunity for open time access (OT1) which will  be released on 20th May with a deadline of 22nd July. I’m sure the huge success that Herschel has been so far will mean a lot of people putting in proposals. There is talk of putting in a proposal for a big cosmology survey – a sort of son of ATLAS and HERMES –  which will be good timing for me and my little team at Cardiff because our theoretical models are almost ready to rumble…

Anyway, here’s to at least another three years of Herschel, although I’ll have to wait until this evening to raise a glass!

Starchild

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 10, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a busy day today,  so I’ve decided to be lazy and plunder the online stack of juicy Herschel images for a pretty picture to show. This one has done the rounds in the popular media recently, which is not surprising given how strange it looks.

Image Credits: ESA / PACS & SPIRE Consortium, Dr. Annie Zavagno, LAM, HOBYS Key Programme Consortia

This image shows a Galactic bubble (technically an HII emission region) called RCW 120 that contains an embryonic star that looks set to turn into one of the brightest stars in the Galaxy. It lies about 4300 light-years away. The star is not visible at these infrared avelengths but its radiation pressure pushes on the surrounding dust and gas. In the approximately 2.5 million years the star has existed, it has raised the density of matter in the bubble wall by so much that the material trapped there can now collapse to form new stars.

The bright knot to the right of the base of the bubble is an unexpectedly large, embryonic star, triggered into formation by the power of the central star. Herschel’s observations have shown that it already contains between 8-10 times the mass of our Sun. The star can only get bigger because it is surrounded by a cloud containing an additional 2000 solar masses.

Not all of that will fall onto the star, because even the largest stars in the Galaxy do not exceed 150 solar masses. But the question of what stops the matter falling onto the star is an astrophysical puzzle. According to theory, stars should stop forming at about 8 solar masses. At that mass they should become so hot that they shine powerfully at ultraviolet wavelengths exerting so much radiation pressure that it should push the surrounding matter away, much as the central star did to form this bubble in the first place. But this mass limit is must be exceeded sometimes, otherwise there would be no giant stars in the Galaxy. So astronomers would like to know how some stars can seem to defy physics and grow so large. Is this newly discovered stellar embryo destined to grow into a stellar monster? At the moment, nobody knows but further analysis of this Herschel image could give us invaluable clues.

It also reminds me a little bit of the Starchild from 2001: A Space Odyssey…

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.

First Science from Herschel

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 4, 2010 by telescoper

A comment posted today on a previous item reminded me that this is supposed to be a science blog, so I thought it would be a good idea to put up a brief message about the status of Herschel.

Today is the first day of the Herschel First Results Symposium which is being held on the premises of ESTEC at Noordwijk in The Netherlands; you can see the poster below. There’s quite a strong Cardiff contingent there, and the meeting will go on until Friday, so it’s a going to be a bit quiet around here for the rest of the week.

The results being presented at this Symposium are covered by a strict ESA policy and most of them are embargoed, at least  for the time being. However, you can keep up with the meeting to some extent on Twitter, as I’ve been doing from time to time. Just follow #eslab2010. There are also edited highlights on the Herschel Mission Blog. It’s a bit frustrating only getting the odd snippet, but it does at least give you an idea of what’s going on and a heads-up for things that will be released officially soon.

In fact pretty soon a load of Herschel images and other results will be made public and I’ll be spoilt for choice as to what to post on here. In fact, I think all the presentations at the Symposium will be put online after it’s finished. There’s also going to be a deluge of science papers on the arXiv, the result of a lot of hard work (not to say a total panic) by those directly involved in analysing the first data to come through from the telescope. I’m looking forward to that, although there’s no way I’ll have time to read them all!

It’s hard to believe that it’s just a little under a year since we gathered in a state of nervous tension (moderated by a steady intake of alcohol) to watch the launch of Planck and Herschel. I don’t think I’m giving away any secrets when I write that the mission has been an outstanding success so far, even exceeding its specified performance in some respects.

I’ll be posting some Herschel goodies from time to time once the embargo is lifted, but until that happens you’ll just have to wait. I could tell you more but if I did I’d have to kill you.

PS. To return to my first sentence, I’m not even sure I should call this a science blog. I think of it as a personal blog, written by a person who happens to be a scientist…

Protostars in the Rosette Nebula

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 13, 2010 by telescoper

Every now and again I remember that I should  pretend that this is an astronomy blog. A new press release from the European Space Agency just reminded me again, by unveiling a wonderful new Herschel image of part of the Rosette Nebula:

This isn’t really one for the cosmologists as it concerns a star-forming region in our own Galaxy. Herschel collects the infrared light given out by cool dust; this image is a three-colour composite made of wavelengths at 70 microns (blue), 160 microns (green) and 250 microns (red). It was made with observations from Herschel’s Photoconductor Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS) and the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE). The bright smudges are dusty cocoons containing massive protostars. The small spots near the centre of the image are lower mass protostars.

This is a wonderful demonstration of how Herschel is able to see massive objects – probably about ten times the mass of the Sun – previously hidden from view within the nebular dust. Studies such as this will help astronomers understand much better the processes by which stars form in regions such as this.

PS. If you want to know why this is called the Rosette Nebula, you need to see what the whole thing looks like in optical light:

Taken for Granted

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on March 10, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Astronomy group in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University was informed of the result of its recent application to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) for a continuation of its rolling grant. I haven’t been able to post anything about it because it has led to some difficult personal situations and we didn’t want anyone to hear about it other than face to face from relevant members of the department.

In case you weren’t aware, a rolling grant covers a 5-year but a group holding one has to apply for renewal every three years at which point the programme of research is reviewed by a panel of experts. If this review is positive a new 5-year grant is awarded and the two years remaining on the old grant or cancelled. In the case of a negative review, however, there is two years’ grace until the funding is terminated, giving the applicants the chance to try again next time.

At least that’s what used to happen.

The previous Cardiff Astronomy roller supported 6 postdoctoral research assistants (PDRAs) as well as providing other funds for travel, equipment, infrastructure and other staff time. This time we requested an increase, primarily in order to enable us to exploit the wonderful data coming from the Herschel observatory. I joined Cardiff after the last review so I wasn’t included in the existing  funding package. However, I did succeed in getting a standard grant in last year’s grant round which provides support for a 3-year period. This time, I applied to have this grant subsumed into the rolling programme when it completes in 2012. I requested an extension to the 3-years to tide this over until the next rolling grant and bring me into phase with the rest of the group.

That was the idea, anyway. STFC is extremely short of money, so despite what we felt was a strong case for supporting our Herschel work we weren’t particularly optimistic of a good outcome, especially since  additional cuts to research grants were announced last December.  In fact the rolling grant application went in last year, but the process is extremely lengthy. Three of us had to go to Swindon last October to present the case to the grants panel. The panel had apparently completed its work by December, but when new cuts were announced they had to revisit their decisions. That’s why we were only informed at the end of February of the level of support that we would get from April 1st this year.

In fact we received two announcements, one detailing what we would have got had the panel’s original recommendations been followed, then another showing the result of the additional 15% cut decided in December. In the first we were cut from 6 PDRAs to 5, but in the second an additional position was cut leaving us with 4 surviving from the previous grant. Moreover, STFC has basically abandoned the rolling grant concept entirely, and refused us permission to let the previous grant roll out. We had no choice but to accept the new grant, which means that we have insufficient funds from 1st April 2010 to honour contracts already issued to two scientists. Not a pleasant situation to be presented with. We’ve managed to find a way of coping to the extent that nobody will be made redundant in the short-term, but it’s still a time of great uncertainty for those involved.

For my own part, the circumstances are a bit better. The panel did award me an extension of my grant to enable me to merge my research with the rest of the programme by the next review date. They also – unexpectedly, I must admit – gave me a small uplift in my existing funding. I’ll be OK, at least for another 3 years.

Overall, we’re disappointed. The outcome wasn’t as good as we’d hoped but, then again, it wasn’t as bad as we’d feared. Taking into account the standard grant I hold, we’ve gone down from 7 PDRAs to 5. I’ve heard rumours of much more drastic cuts elsewhere, and I’m sure other departments are feeling the pain much more than we are right now. I don’t have a clear picture of what has happened nationally, so I’d be grateful for any information people might be prepared to divulge through the comments box as long as you don’t betray any confidences!

The whole business of securing grant funding can be deeply frustrating, and sometimes the  decisions seem bewildering. However, I’ve been on these panels before and I know how hard it is, so I’m never tempted to whinge. In fact, I’m going to be joining the panel again for this round. Not that I’m looking forward to it very much!

However, I can’t resist ending with a comment about the current management of STFC. It really seems quite absurd to be cutting grant funding at precisely the time that Herschel and Planck are starting to deliver huge quantities of exquisite data.  I say that as a scientist of course, not a civil servant. However, the prevailing mentality at STFC – instigated by the Treasury – seems to be that science part of their remit is much less important than the technology and the facilities. Although the Science Minister Lord Drayson recently announced a proposal that purports to fix some of STFC’s difficulties, this seems more than likely to keep grant funding at a miserably low level for the indefinite future. The STFC management’s readiness to rewrite the rules governing rolling grants, cut funding at absurdly short notice, and raid the grant budget in order to solve problems elsewhere has convinced me that there will be no improvement until there are people at the top that recognize that it’s science that matters, that science is done by people, and that the way to manage those people is not to treat them the way they are doing now.

Especially if they want people to provide free advice to their panels…

Herschel News

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 17, 2010 by telescoper

I’ve been a bit slow to mention recent news about the European Space Agency‘s Herschel mission so this is by way of a quick update.

The first thing is to remind you that there was a big meeting of Herschel scientists in Madrid just before Christmas, which was attended by quite a number of Cardiff astronomers. It also happened to coincide with  less happy events. The purpose of this meeting was to share the preliminary results from the Science Demonstration Phase of Herschel’s operations. I did a quick post about some of the results, but didn’t have time to cover everything, which I still don’t. However, the complete set of presentations is now available online and I’d encourage you to sample some of the amazing results. Matt Griffin gave a nice overview of the key results at the RAS Ordinary Meeting just over a week ago.

You may recall that the Herschel telescope is fitted with three instruments:

  • The Photodetector Array Camera and Spectrometer (PACS)
  • The Spectral and Photometric Imaging REceiver (SPIRE)
  • The Heterodyne Instrument for the Far Infrared (HIFI)

The last of these instruments is basically a high-resolution spectrometer which, among other things will be great for detecting spectral lines from molecules, including good old H2O. In fact here’s a nice example of a water line seen in a comet

The problem is that HIFI has actually been switched off for quite a while – 160 days in fact – after a fault developed in its power supply. There is a backup power-supply, of course, but the engineers didn’t want to switch it over until they had figured out what had gone wrong, which took quite a while.  However, last Thursday, the HIFI instrument was switched back on and is now working fine. The full story can be found here. It was also covered quite a bit in the general media, including  the BBC.

While HIFI was offline, the calibration and verification of PACS and SPIRE went ahead at a good speed and now HIFI will have to catch up which has meant a bit of juggling around with schedules but, other than that, it’s all systems go…

Finally, I’ll just point out in case you didn’t know or have forgotten, that the Herschel Mission has its own wordpress blog, which is regularly updated  and is well worth checking out.

In the Bleak Midwinter

Posted in Biographical, Cricket, Poetry, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2010 by telescoper

Apologies for my posts being a bit thin lately. It turned out to be quite a strange week, as I’ll explain in due course, but I thought I’d take the opportunity now to catch up a little bit. I apologize in advance for the rambling nature of this contribution, but if you read this blog regularly you’ll be used to that.

We’re all now back at work after the Christmas break, but this was always going to be an unusual week because it’s the last one before the mid-year examinations start. During this time there are revision lectures, but the timetable isn’t as full as in term-time proper, so  it’s more like a half-way house than a genuine return to full-time work. Although I’m always glad not to be thrown into full-time teaching or examination marking straight away after the break, I always find this hiatus slightly disorienting.

This year things are even stranger than usual because, after largely escaping the bad weather that has affected the rest of the country since before Christmas, snow and ice finally arrived with a vengeance in Cardiff on Tuesday night. It wasn’t too bad where I live, quite near the city centre, but a lot of snow fell up in rural areas, especially up in the valleys, with the result that quite a few members of staff couldn’t make it into work.

Talking of the weather gives me the excuse to include this absolutely beautiful picture of snow-bound Britain taken by NASA’s Earth Observatory satellite:

The problem wasn’t so much the snow itself, but the fact that the temperature dropped steeply soon after it fell leaving roads and pavements coated with sheets of ice. My regular refuse collection, scheduled for Wednesday, didn’t happen because the trucks couldn’t make it through the treacherous conditions, and buses and trains were severely disrupted. I think there’s been a similar picture across most of the United Kingdom.

Incidentally, the well-known Christmas carol from which I took the title of this post began life as a poem by Christina Rossetti, the first verse of which goes

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

I don’t know why but, as the snow was falling heavily in the early hours of Wednesday morning, I woke up with terrible stomach pains, so bad that they kept me awake all night. I assume that this was some sort of belated reaction to yuletide over- indulgence rather than anything more serious because the discomfort eventually died away and I was left with mere exhaustion after losing a whole night’s sleep. Rather than risk walking in through the snow, I retreated to bed and slept most of Wednesday although I didn’t eat or drink anything the whole day.

Columbo kept me good company during this unpleasant episode. Usually if we’re in the house at the same time he sometimes stays by my side, but he’s at other times quite happy to potter around, or sleep on his own in  a place of his choosing.  I think he knew something wasn’t right, because he never left me alone all day which is quite unusual. Alternatively, he may just have found it warmer being next to me than elsewhere. Who knows?

My guts apparently having recovered, I went into the department on Thursday for a busy day of project interviews. These are held half-way through the third year in order to assess the students progress on their projects. In between the interviews I was trying to keep up with progress on the last day of the test match between South Africa and England taking place in Cape Town, where the weather was somewhat different to Cardiff. The match had been coming to the boil, eventually ending in a draw as England’s last pair once again staved off what looked likely to be a defeat. Shades of Monty last summer! Although it was clearly a gripping finale, I’m glad in a way that I didn’t get to follow it more closely. I always get an uneasy churning feeling in my stomach during tense passages of play, and after what had happened the day before I think that was best avoided.

Yesterday (Friday) was the date of the January meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, and I decided to show my faith in the public transport system by making the round trip to London.  No-one can accuse me of having lost my spirit of adventure! Some trains had been cancelled, but those still running seemed to be on time and I thought the odds weren’t too bad.

The specialist Discussion Meeting featured a programme dedicated to the legacy of XMM, a highly successful X-ray satellite that has just had its funding axed by STFC. Later on, during the Ordinary Meeting there was an interesting talk by Alan Fitzsimmons about the impact of a small asteroid with the Earth that took place in October 2008,  and Matt Griffin presented some of the stunning new results from Herschel. RAS Discussion meetings are always held on the 2nd Friday of the month. Astronomical historian Alan Chapman reminded the Society that the corresponding meeting 80 years ago, on 10th January 1930,  was an important event in the development of the theory of the expanding universe.

Fully recovered from my tummy problems, I rounded the week off with a trip to the RAS Club for a nice dinner at the Athenaeum. Turnout was a bit lower than usual, presumably because of the inclement weather. This was the so-called Parish Meeting, at which various items of Club business are carried out, including the election of new members and Club officers. Professor Donald Lynden-Bell recently announced his retirement from the position of President and this was his last occasion in the Chair; the resulting Presidential Election was a close-run affair won by Professor Dame Carole Jordan. The election of new members is an archaic and slightly dotty process which always leaves me wondering how I managed to get elected myself. At one point during these proceedings the Club finds itself to be “without Officers”,  whereupon the most junior member (by length of membership rather than age) suddenly becomes important. On this occasion, this turned out to be me but since I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, I fluffed it. If I’d known I might have seized the opportunity to stage a coup d’etat. Other than this, it seemed to go off without any major hitches and eventually we dispersed into the freezing night to make our ways home.

As usual on Club nights I took the 10.45pm train from Paddington to Cardiff. In the prevailing meteorological circumstances I was a bit nervous about getting home, but my fears were groundless. The train was warm and, with Ipod, Guardian and Private Eye crosswords, and the last 100 pages of a novel to occupy me, the journey was remarkably pleasant. We got to Cardiff 4 minutes ahead of schedule.