Archive for Mike Cruise

Lessons from LIGO

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on February 13, 2016 by telescoper

At the end of a very exciting week I had the pleasure last night of toasting LIGO and the future of gravitational wave astronomy with champagne at the RAS Club in London. Two members of the LIGO collaboration were there, Alberto Vecchio and Mike Cruise (both from Birmingham); Alberto had delivered a very nice talk earlier in the day summarising the LIGO discovery while Mike made a short speech at the club.

This morning I found this interesting video produced by California Institute of Technology (CalTech) which discusses the history of the LIGO experiment:

It has taken over 40 years of determination and hard work to get this far. You can see pictures of some of the protagonists from Thursday’s press conference, such as Kip Thorne, when they were much younger. I bet there were times during the past four decades when they must have doubted that they would ever get there, but they kept the faith and now can enjoy the well-deserved celebrations. They certainly will all be glad they stuck with gravitational waves now, and all must be mighty proud!

Mike Cruise made two points in his speech that I think are worth repeating here. One is that we think of the LIGO discovery is a triumph of physics. It is that, of course. But the LIGO consortium of over a thousand people comprises not only physicists, but also various kinds of engineers, designers, technicians and software specialists. Moreover the membership of LIGO is international. It’s wonderful that people from all over the world can join forces, blend their skils and expertise, and achieve something remarkable. There’s a lesson right there for those who would seek to lead us into small-minded isolationism.

The other point was that the LIGO discovery provides a powerful testament for university research. LIGO was a high-risk experiment that took decades to yield a result. It’s impossible to imagine any commercial company undertaking such an endeavour, so this could only have happened in an institution (or, more correctly, a network of institutions) committed to “blue skies” science. This is research done for its own sake, not to create a short-term profit but to enrich our understanding of the Universe. Asking  profound questions and trying to answer them is one of the things that makes us human. It’s a pity we are so obsessed with wealth and property that we need to be reminded of this, but clearly we do.

The current system of Research Assessment in the UK requires university research to generate “impact” outside the world of academia in a relatively short timescale. That pressure is completely at odds with experiments like LIGO. Who would start a physics experiment now that would take 40 years to deliver?  I’ve said it time and time again to my bosses at the University of Sussex that if you’re serious about supporting physics you have to play a long game because it requires substantial initial investment and generates results only very slowly.  I worry what future lies in store for physics if the fixation on market-driven research continues much longer.

Finally, I couldn’t resist making a comment about another modern fixation – bibliometrics. The LIGO discovery paper in Physical Review Letters has 1,004 authors. By any standard this is an extraordinarily significant article, but because it has over a thousand authors it stands to be entirely excluded by the Times Higher when they compile the next World University Rankings.  Whatever the science community or the general public thinks about the discovery of gravitational waves, the bean-counters deem it worthless. We need to take a stand against this sort of nonsense.






Missing the Point on Open Access

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , , on January 28, 2013 by telescoper

Blogging this week will be a bit patchy as I try to finish off a few Cardiff jobs before the big move to Sussex at the end of the week. However, I have got time today for a quick comment on an article I saw in yesterday’s Observer.

The piece tries argue  that the government’s plans for Open Access, stemming from the Finch Report, amount to an “attack on academic freedoms”, a stance apparently held by a number of eminent historians (and others). The argument is that the Gold Open Access model preferred by RCUK will require the payment of Article Processing Charges (APCs) which could in some cases amount to thousands of pounds per article. Departmental budget holders (possibly administrators rather than academics) will then have to be involved in decisions about which papers can be funded and which can’t. This, it is argued, will mean that researchers will have much less freedom to publish when, where and what they like – the people holding the purse strings will have the final say.

A similar point was made by Mike Cruise in a strange article that appeared in the latest Astronomy and Geophysics (house organ of the Royal Astronomical Society):

Even in the UK it is not clear how the flow of funding for APCs will work. Will universities limit an academic’s publication rate or where he or she can publish? How and by whom will this funding be controlled? Academic freedom may, perversely, be curtailed as a result of open access.

So does Open Access pose a real threat to academic freedom? The answer is “yes”, but only if the Research Councils persist in forcing academics to pay the extortionate APCs demanded by academic publishers, out of all proportion to the real cost of publishing a paper on the internet, which is (at the very most) a few tens of pounds per article. Publishers want a much higher fee than this because they want to maintain their eye-watering profit margins, despite the fact that the “service” they provide has been rendered entirely obsolete by digital technologies. Any protests against open access should be directed to the real enemy, i.e. the profiteers.

The Finch Report was hi-jacked by the publishing lobby, with the result that RCUK has been persuaded to pour  millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money down a gold-plated drain. The model it recommends is absurd and clearly unsustainable. Low-cost repositories and community-based refereeing can deliver Green Open Access at a tiny fraction of the cost of the Gold Option, by cutting out the middle men.

All that’s needed to defend academic freedoms  is to set up on-line subject-based repositories in much the same way as physicists and astronomers have set up the arXiv. In other words, the historians just need an archive.  They should be comfortable with that idea. And as for refereeing, they can do that the way it will shortly be done in astronomy…

P.S.  Astronomy & Geophysics have invited me to write a response to Mike Cruise’s article; my piece should appear in the April 2013 issue. Hopefully it won’t be behind a paywall.

Astronomy Look-alikes, No. 66

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes with tags , , on October 21, 2011 by telescoper

Has anyone else noticed the remarkable resemblance between distinguished astrophysicist and space scientist Mike Cruise and Crazy Frog, the computer animated character used to market the ringtones some people have on their mobile hand-held telephonic devices?

Matt Griffin sent this one in, so blame him…