Archive for Keith Mason

News Flash from STFC

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on October 18, 2011 by telescoper

At last!

The worst kept secret in science is now out. The new Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council is Professor John Womersley. Here’s an official-looking picture of him, although I think it has been photo-shopped to stop him looking so much like Christopher Biggins:

The announcement of appointment of the new CEO has been expected for months now. It appears that the reason for the delay is tied up with the start date. John Womersley will in fact take up the reins at STFC on 1st November 2011, not when the current CEO retires (at the end of March next year) as originally planned. The current CEO, Professor Keith Mason, has been shunted across to kicked into touch at booted into the long grass in given the opportunity to take up a secondment at the UK Space Agency until he retires next year. Apparently he is moving there

to advise on steps needed to leverage the research base to maximise the economic growth of the space sector.

Don’t ask me what it means, but one guesses some form of negotiation must have been going on behind the scenes all this time (a) to persuade Keith Mason to go early and (b) to persuade UKSA to make room in the basement for him.

Anyway, heartiest congratulations to John Womersley (@JohnWomersley on Twitter)  on his new appointment. A change was long overdue, and I wish him well in what is going to be a difficult job.

Il Convitato di Pietra

Posted in Literature, Opera with tags , , , , on August 7, 2011 by telescoper

As regular readers of this blog will know, I have a – sometimes excessive –  interest in the origin and meaning of words. It’s not something that many people share, but I think language is a fascinating thing, in the way that it evolves so that words and phrases take on different nuances.

It’s not just in English that this happens, of course. The other day I received in a brochure about Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming production of  Don Giovanni (for which I’ve already got first-night tickets). I’ll no doubt post a review in due course, but probably the most famous scene of what is arguably Mozart’s greatest opera is near the end of Act II when the statue of the murdered Comendatore arrives to claim Don Giovanni’s soul, with the words

Don Giovanni a cenar teco
m’invitasti e son venuto!

(Don Giovanni, you invited me to dine with you and I have come!) It’s a stunning scene from the point of view of both music and drama, and can also be genuinely frightening when done well.

Here’s an example from Youtube, with the doom-laden basso profundo of Kurt Moll as the Comendatore

Some years ago in Nottingham I went to see Don Giovanni performed by the Lithuanian National Opera. It was a nice but unremarkable production until it reached the Comendatore scene. The arrival of the ghostly figure is preceded by an ominous knocking sound which, in this production, emanated from offstage, to the right, as the audience watched. The cast all looked in this direction, as did all the audience. But it was a classic piece of stage misdirection. Suddenly, the music announced the arrival of the statue, a spotlight flashed on and there was the Comendatore already in centre stage. It took me completely by surprise and I gasped audibly, to the obvious disapproval of the team of old ladies sitting in the row in front of me, who shook their heads and tutted. I had  seen Don Giovanni before, and knew exactly what was coming, but was still scared..

Anyway, that’s not really the point of this post. At a conference some years ago I was talking to an Italian colleague of mine and he told me something I found fascinating, which is that the Comendatore scene had led to an idiomatic expression in Italian Il Convitato di Pietra (“The Stone Guest”) which is in quite common usage.

In fact there  are other works that allude to this phrase including an earlier opera called Don Giovanni o Il Convitato di Pietra and a later play by Pushkin called The Stone Guest.

So what does it mean? It’s not quite the same as the Comendatore scene would suggest. In Italian it is given as

(una) presenza incombente ma invisibile, muta, e perciò inquietante e imprevedibile, che tutti conoscono ma che nessuno nomina

which I’ll translate with my feeble Italian as

an impending but invisible  presence, dumb and therefore disturbing and unexpected, which everyone knows but no-one names

In other (English) words, “The Stone Guest” is someone who’s not actually present – at least not physically – but who nevertheless manages to cast some sort of a shadow over the proceedings. I’m sure we can all think of occasions when this would have been a very apt phrase but there seems to be no English equivalent. It’s not quite the same as the Elephant in the Room, but has some similarity.

Now that I’ve had a chance to think, though, perhaps there is an English equivalent. A person who is perpetually absent but despite that exerts baleful influence on those present? A name connected with stone?

It’s got to be Keith Mason….

Batting for Astronomy

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by telescoper

I was too busy teaching this morning to watch streaming video of the meeting of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee I referred to in a previous post, but then, being a confirmed Luddite,  I rarely manage to get such things to work properly anyway. Or is it just that Parliament TV isn’t very good? Anyway, I did get the chance to do a fast-forward skim through the coverage, and also saw a few comments on Twitter.

By all accounts the two big hitters for astronomy, Professor Roger Davies and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell both played good innings, watchful in defence, parrying the odd tricky delivery, but also scoring impressively when the opportunity arose. Dame Jocelyn, for example, got in a nice comment to the effect that the shortfall in observatory funding was equivalent to one banker’s bonus.

Any other reactions are welcomed through the comments box.

The e-astronomer (whose pseudonym is Andy Lawrence)  has already blogged about the event, including a delightfully pithy summary of the written evidence submitted beforehand . But then Andy’s never reluctant to take the pith when the opportunity arises…

The thing that depresses me most is the contrast between the forthright and well-considered performances of leading figures from the astronomy establishment with the bumbling efforts of the Chief Executive of STFC, Keith Mason. As Andy Lawrence points out, some of the latter’s responses to questions at the last session of the inquiry were downright misleading, giving the impression that he didn’t know what he was talking about. And that’s the more generous interpretation. Combine the poor grasp of detail with his generally unenthusiastic demeanour, and it becomes easy to see that one of the main reasons for the ongoing crisis at STFC is its Chief Executive.

I’ve been told off repeatedly in private for posting items on here that are severely critical of Professor Mason, sometimes on the grounds that my comments are ad hominem, a phrase so frequently misused on the net that it is in danger of losing its proper meaning. It’s not an “ad hominem” attack to state that a person is demonstrably useless at their job. I stand  my ground. He should have gone years ago.

Unfortunately we still have to wait another year or so before a replacement Chief Executive will be installed at STFC. Good people elsewhere – both  inside and outside science – have lost or are losing their jobs, because of the recession and cutbacks, through no fault of their own. Reality is much less harsh if you’re at the top.


The Winds of Change

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on February 12, 2011 by telescoper

I came back late last night from an interesting Open Meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society, followed by another exceedingly pleasant Club Dinner at the Travellers’ in Pall Mall; next time we’ll be back at The Athenaeum.

I didn’t get home until 1.30am, and went straight to bed. I woke early to news of momentous events. The discredited authoritarian leader of an exausted regime who had presided over financial collapse and who had been clinging tenaciously to the offices of power, attempting to stave off the widespread clamour for his resignation with the promise of a new administration in several months’ time, had finally resigned. The news filled me with jubilation and a sense of optimism for the future.

I went back to sleep, waking again a couple of hours later with the sad realisation that it had all been a dream.

Keith Mason is still in charge of STFC.


A New Theory of Dark Matter

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on November 6, 2010 by telescoper

Since this week has seen the release of a number of interesting bits of news about particle physics and cosmology, I thought I’d take the chance to keep posting about science by way of a distraction from the interminable discussion of  funding and related political issues. This time I thought I’d share some of my own theoretical work, which I firmly believe offers a viable alternative to current orthodox thinking in the realm of astroparticle physics.

As you probably know, one of the most important outstanding problems in this domain is to find an explanation of dark matter, a component of the matter distribution of the Universe which is inferred to exist from its effects on the growth of cosmic structures but which is yet to be detected by direct observations. We know that this dark matter can’t exist in the form of familiar atomic material (made of protons, neutrons and electrons) so it must comrpise some other form of matter. Many candidates exist, but the currently favoured model is that it is made of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs) arising in particle physics theories involving supersymmetry, perhaps the fermionic counterpart of the gauge bosons of the standard model, e.g. the photino (the supersymmetric counterpart of the photon).

However, extensive recent research has revealed that this standard explanation may in fact be incorrect and circumstantial evidence is mounting that supports a  radically different scenario. I am now in a position to reveal the basics of a new theory that accounts for many recent observations in terms of an alternative hypothesis, which entails the existence of a brand new particle called the k-Mason.

Standard WIMP dark matter comprises very massive particles which move very slowly, hence the term Cold Dark Matter or CDM, for short.  This means that CDM forms structures very rapidly and efficiently, in a hierarchical or “bottom-up” fashion. This idea is at the core of the standard “concordance” cosmological model.

However, the k-Mason is known to travel such huge distances at such high velocity in random directions between its (rare) encounters that it not only inhibits the self-organisation of other matter, but actively dissipates structures once they have been formed. All this means that structure formation is strongly suppressed and can only happen in a “top-down” manner, which is extremely inefficient as it can only form small-scale structures through the collapse of larger ones. Astronomers have compiled a huge amount of evidence of this effect in recent years, lending support to the existence of the k-Mason as a dominant influence  (which is of course entirely at odds with the whole idea of concordance).

Other studies also provide pretty convincing quantitative evidence of the large mean free path of the k-Mason.

Although this new scenario does seem to account very naturally for the observational evidence of  collapse and fragmentation gathered by UK astronomers since 2007, there are still many issues to be resolved before it can be developed into a fully testable theory. One difficulty is that the k-Mason appears to be surprisingly stable, whereas most theories suggest it would have vanished long before the present epoch. On the other hand, it has also been suggested that, rather than simply decaying, the k-Mason may instead  transform into some other species with similar properties; suggestions for alternative candidates emerging from the decay of the  k-Mason  are actively being sought and it is hoped this process will be observed definitively within the next 18 months or so.

However the biggest problem facing this idea is the extreme difficulty of  detecting the k-Mason  at experimental or observational facilities. Some scientists have claimed evidence of its appearance at various laboratories run by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), as well as at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, but these claims remain controversial: none has really stood up to detailed scrutiny and all lack independent confirmation from reliable witnesses. Likewise there is little proof of the presence of k-Mason at any ground-based astronomical observatory, which has led many astronomers to conclude that  only observations done from space will remain viable in the longer term.

So, in summary, while the k-Mason remains a hypothetical entity, it does furnish a plausible theory that accounts, in a broad-brush sense, for many disparate phenomena. I urge particle physicists, astronomers and cosmologists to join forces in the hunt for this enigmatic object.

NOTE ADDED IN PROOF: The hypothetical “k-Mason” referred to in this article is not to be confused with the better-known “strange” particle the  k-Meson.


Poisoned Chalice, Anyone?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on November 1, 2010 by telescoper

In the July instalment of news from STFC Council, among the items discussed  were the arrangements for selecting a successor to the current Chief Executive Officer, Professor Keith Mason. Apparently a sub-group of the Council has been established to work out how to proceed; its terms of reference are also given. Among the latter you can find the following statement:

Keith Mason comes to the end of his second and final term as a Research Council CEO in March 2012 having served as PPARC CEO and then as founding CEO of STFC. Council believes it to be important that in the context of the selection of a new chief executive that a clear understanding is reached with STFC’s various stakeholders as to the role and responsibilities of the STFC chief executive in leading a complex and diverse organisation through what will undoubtedly be times of further change, uncertainty and financial pressure. Council also believes it will be important to understand as we move forward any lessons that should be learnt from the circumstances behind the communication recently received by the chairman from individuals within STFC’s academic communities expressing concern about STFC’s leadership.

The italics are mine. The communication referred to in the above extract must be the petition, signed by over nine hundred scientists, expressing no confidence in the current executive and discussed here recently in a guest post by Professor George Efstathiou.

The fear is that the Science and Technology Facilities Council will decide to appoint a Chief Executive, perhaps from the world of commerce or industry, who has even less sympathy for the fundamental sciences, such as astronomy and particle physics than the current one.

The latest (October) News from Council contains a report from the sub-Group advising on the appointment of the new CEO which makes interesting reading.  For example, the mandatory requirements for candidates for the post include that he/she should

  • Have a strong and respected STEM background and qualification (at least to PhD level), or similar (e.g. in the biomedical sector) provided candidates can demonstrate an appreciation and understanding of the scale and complexity of STFC science and research;
  • Command the respect of the academic communities and be seen as champion of STFC’s research base;
  • Be recognised as having previously and successfully led and managed (with total accountability) an organisation or organisational unit of an appropriate and relevant degree of complexity;
  • Demonstrate a very high intellectual calibre;
  • Have experience of working within an international context;

This suggests that they will be looking for someone with a background in academic research although not specifically in physics or astronomy. This will come as a relief to many working in areas covered by STFC’s remit, and even might inspire a few people I know to start writing updating their CVs. However, I think it  will be extremely difficult for STFC to persuade anyone of sufficient calibre to take up a post which has,  for the entire duration of the existence of the organisation,  involved responding  to a calamitous series of financial crises and restructurings with very little scope for implementing a coherent science programme. In fact, three years since its inception, the STFC still hasn’t produced any document that represents a science strategy of any real substance.

I hope that STFC has better times ahead of it, but I wonder how many qualified candidates would just see this job as a poisoned chalice?


The Invisible Ma(so)n

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on September 12, 2010 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist sharing this little item I saw on the back page of the last issue of Research Fortnight:

WHERE’S KEITH? Once upon a time STFC chief executive
Keith Mason could be seen out and about, taking flak
in public for all manner of woes. But Research Fortnight
can’t help noticing that he has been remarkable only
by his absence recently. No site visits, no photo ops, no
community chit chats. He is due to stand down in March
2012, but how should we interpret his low profile in the
meantime? Surely no one can have built up that much
unused holiday?

On the other hand, the last time the Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) got involved in a Comprehensive Spending Review (in 2007), the outcome for his organization could hardly have been described as positive. Perhaps other members of the STFC Executive have decided to send him on a fact-finding mission to the Outer Hebrides in order to stop him messing up the negotations this time?


Two Cheers for Lord Drayson

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on March 4, 2010 by telescoper

The long awaited announcement of Lord Drayson‘s review of the structure of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC)  has finally appeared together with parallel announcements by STFC and RCUK. There’s already been a lot of reaction on Twitter about this, and it has also reached the  BBC News.

There’s actually not much in the announcement that’s particularly surprising.  The plan is to insulate STFC from the effects of currency fluctuations on its subscription commitments to international organizations, and also to share the cost of large domestic facilities across the whole science programme rather than just STFC on its own. In the shorter term (i.e. 2010-11) STFC will continue to receive some help to deal with the uncontrollable external pressures on its budget.

In the longer term it is anticipated that the subscription to the European Space Agency will move to a new UK Space Agency anyway.

These moves are all good news, and will probably help STFC to reach some level of stability. I am certainly grateful to Lord Drayson for getting involved in this process. It will be a while before we find out how it will work out in practice, but at least it’s a start.

The big problem I see is that STFC may well reach “stability”, but the position of equilibrium looks likely to be one with a very low level of grant funding for astronomy and particle physics. Perhaps I’m being excessively cynical, but it still looks to me like this financial crisis was deliberately engineered in order to squeeze fundamental research by 25%. That has now been achieved, so the grey men of the Treasury can now remove the straitjacket. I don’t see any signal that our grants will return to a sustainable level, however, so the astronomy community will probably continue to wither away. The Drayson review may staunched the flow of blood, but the patient will remain  dangerously  ill unless additional measures are taken. (Too many metaphors, Ed.)

Which brings me to a final point. Having a sensible management structure for STFC isn’t the same as having a sensible STFC management. I know I’m not the only astronomer in the UK to have lost all confidence in the current Chief Executive, Keith Mason. As long as he remains in charge I’m suspicious that any structural modifications will amount to no more than window-dressing and astronomy and particle physics will continue to be neglected in favour of technology-driven projects.

We might – just might –  have stopped going backwards, but in order to start going forwards we need a new leader.

PS. For  the best compilation of sources on the STFC crisis, see Paul Crowther’s pages here.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 15

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on February 11, 2010 by telescoper

Since it is rumoured that the BBC  has decided to axe Top Gear, it’s fortunate that James May has an alternative career as Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Still, all that experience of things crashing and burning  seems to have stood him in good stead..

Professor Keith Mason

James May


Posted in Poetry, Science Politics with tags , , on October 27, 2009 by telescoper

At the last Meeting of the RAS Council on October 9th 2009, Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), made a presentation after which he claimed that STFC spends too much on “exploitation”, i.e. on doing science with the facilities it provides. This statement clearly signals an intention to cut grants to research groups still further and funnel a greater proportion of STFC’s budget into technology development rather than pure research.

Following on from Phillip Helbig’s challenge a couple of posts ago, I decided to commemorate the occasion with an appropriate sonnet, inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14.


Mr K.O.M.

It seems Keith Mason doesn’t give a fuck
About the future of Astronomy.
“The mess we’re in is down to rotten luck
And our country’s  ruin’d economy”;
Or that’s the tale our clueless leader tells
When oft by angry critics he’s assailed,
Undaunted he in Swindon’s office dwells
Refusing to accept it’s him that failed.
And now he tells us we must realise:
We spend “too much on science exploitation”.
Forget the dreams of research in blue skies
The new name of the game is wealth creation.
A truth his recent statement underlines
Is that we’re doomed unless this man resigns.