Space in Vogue?

At the moment, there is a competition running in the magazine Vogue for young writers. First prize is a month’s internship along with £1,000, with £500 for the runner up. For the competition, the magazine asks for all three of:

1) An 800 word piece on a personal memory – a person, place, event or just something that resonated deeply.

2) A 500 word short feature article on a contemporary cultural review or fashion trend.

3) A 500 word opinion piece or polemic on, for example, a person, current affairs or social issues etc.

…to be entered before the 9th of April.

Now, as I am old (a good three years above the age limit of 25) I cannot submit anything, but I can urge those interested in space and of the right age to give our field a bit of a boost by writing in. As I also write this blog, I can also submit here the three articles I would otherwise have submitted to the competition, so read on and if you think you could do better, then write in (to Vogue for the competition – but if you’re old like me, then do a blog entry and link to it in the comments).

All three of these may or may not just be rehashed previous blog entries…

1) The day the Sun stood still

This weekend sees the start of professor Brian Cox’s new TV series ‘Wonders of the Solar System’. In it, Cox is rendered speechless by a total solar eclipse. On the 21st of June 2001, I too experienced a total eclipse of the Sun and the experience stays with me to this day.

The eclipse trip happened as the university equivalent of a school trip. We had the standard experiences of sitting on the bus while teacher, the wonderful professor Nigel Mason, took the register; everyone vanishing at inopportune moments during excursions; and people sleeping in on the morning we were all to head off for the eclipse. Though in my defence, I did request a wake-up call that never came.

In other ways the trip was less ordinary. We were all to make our individual ways to the hotel in Harare in the middle of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. As the country’s airports were deluged by block-booking eclipse chasers, this meant getting there via a twelve hour flight to South Africa in a rather pleasant Virgin Atlantic plane. In the summer leading up to 9/11, we enjoyed metal cutlery and little hassle at the airport. In the days of Deep Vein Thrombosis scares, we were instructed to occasionally stretch our legs in the cabin, actually quite inevitable in a half-day free booze filled flight.

After landing, I took a taxi along dusty, warm roads to try and get onto a train to Harare from Pretoria. It was fully booked for the next couple of days, so I grabbed a night in a local hotel instead. The next day, the reception staff pointed me towards a dusty lay-by where coaches to Bulawayo would stop to pick up passengers. The coach was both a border crossing vehicle and a local bus. As a result, for most the journey, we were crammed full, but as Zimbabwe loomed, we suddenly lost two thirds of the passengers and a daring dozen moved to a border where a few days previously another potential crosser had fallen foul to crocodile infested rivers.

Bulawayo was a hell of a lot different from Pretoria. The same dusty landscape, but somehow the dust was muddier. The buildings were relatively low rise and seemed higher density, like squat guards just blocking off lines of vision from all sides. A cash machine I went to use had an armed guard and a door that had to be unlocked before I was allowed in. The hotel had an armed bellboy. After just one night there, I once again headed onward to Harare, making better time than the train, but in less luxurious surroundings. I found myself on a ‘bullet bus’ – so called because they are small, fast and very dangerous. Think of a police van outfitted to hold fifteen passengers.

I ended up reaching the hotel a day early, without deodorant, but with mosquito repellent. On the morning of the 21st, I found myself on another bus journey, this time to a remote valley along a mountain pass that served as a stand in observation point, following the double-booking of our first choice. The toilet was a hole in the ground surrounded by reed curtains. Refreshments were served from a tent and we arrived early.

We sat on the side of a valley looking over woodland and scrubland. The skies were clear and blue – unlike our first choice location, which was half overcast. Beneath the ridge on which I and a few others sat, astronomers sat nibbling the complimentary lunch boxes and setting up cameras and equipment. Through my glasses I watched the Moon take an ever deeper bite of the solar disc. A huge chunk had been taken before any dimming of the light could be perceived, then all of a sudden, darkness began to fall. The temperature began to fall and the sounds of the African countryside began to fall away.

In a moment, the Moon obscured the Sun, leaving behind  the giant corona – the ‘atmosphere’ of the Sun – extending maybe five times the diameter of the full Moon, a massive object in the sky. Then there was the sky itself. Twilight had fallen with the Sun standing high above. The brighter planets, the brighter stars were shining and I stood on this alien ridge like a flea on an orrery watching the planets turn around the Sun. It was all over in a few heart stopping minutes, but it was a sight I could see vividly for days afterward. For those who have seen a lunar eclipse or a partial solar eclipse and consider eclipses to be a damp squib, believe me, Brian Cox was left speechless for a reason.

2) Astronomy in 140 characters

Often when the subject of astronomy is brought up, people’s minds turn to the verbose field of astrophysics and all the long words and difficult concepts it has. Of course some minds will turn to astrology and wonder about their star signs, but that’s for another article. When pressed to think about amateur astronomy, the minds will turn to anoraks in their garden peering down a lonesome eyepiece accompanied by a thermos and the neighbourhood cat. How can it be, then, that astronomy has built a strong presence on that most concise platform of social networking Twitter?

On the 30th of May 2009, I was honoured to take part in the first large scale Twitter #MoonWatch. Users of the network, prompted with a bit of celebrity endorsement from Maggie Philbin, were invited to join the Newbury Astronomical Society in a night of observations. And as it turns out, the medium meshed well with the world of astronomy.

Astronomers like to record what they’re viewing – and I mean everything. The weather conditions (how cloudy is it), the transparency of the air (how murky is it), the seeing (how stable is the air) and even the amount of light pollution could be written down before a single observation is made. An observing plan, the equipment used, locations, times and targets are other snippets an astronomer may include in his log of an evening. Each one can also be a single tweet. If a dozen astronomers give that many tweets about a – for example the Moon, Saturn, the Ring Nebula or Jupiter – all of which were present on that first night – then that’s quite some level of activity. We were inundated with astronomers tweeting their equipment for example.

This activity was also augmented by images of the targets observed, using partner websites like Twitpic, but the most important addition to the general log items were the questions and queries of ordinary members of the public, who wanted to know more. We could tell them where to look for Saturn, how to use binoculars to see craters on the Moon, what that dusty old telescope in the attic could be used for as well as pointing out resources on the net for more advanced topics.

The original #MoonWatch was succeeded by further #MoonWatches and #MeteorWatches that brought in videos of meteor captures and live broadcasting from telescope eyepieces. @NewburyAS, the controlling web presence, has accrued more than two and a half thousand followers and leaked onto a Facebook group to extend its reach further. Astronomy may be getting its funding slashed at the top, but down here in the grassroots there’s a revolution going on and its global. Astronomy through twitter is here to stay and inspire many more to Look Up and be amazed.

3) Trouble at the Top

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has been hobbled by structural problems from the very beginning, but these have been exacerbated by the tentative complicity of the very academics who should in theory be most interested in holding it to account.

When the STFC was first created in a merger between the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (large facilities) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (research grants), it was left with a budget that did not cover the combined costs of the new council. The management structure, mostly implanted from PPARC, took the opportunity to reshape those areas of science over which it had control in their own image. Overseen by the present Chief Executive of STFC, Keith Mason, it led to a series of cuts that the Science and Technology Parliamentary Committee described as making the UK look like an unreliable partner and incompetent. The focus on cutting a particular part of UK science, Solar Terrestrial Physics, was described as ‘bizarre’.

Despite this, Mason remained in place while a rescue plan was brought into effect. The cuts took place with immediate effect, so by the time of the report, researchers were more or less resigned to them. They were somewhat mitigated by a loan to the council of money by Research Councils UK, a group that oversees the research councils. Without further danger on the horizon, that for Mason passed as there was now no reason to move against him. Investing in People had produced a report identifying problems in the council’s management structure and it seemed these were being worked on. In the vernacular of the time Mason had led us into this so should be the one to lead us out. Sadly it doesn’t actually work like that. There was no physical journey STFC took that had steps it needed to retrace, just a lack of forward planning and skill by a man who tailored his brief in order to second guess his political masters in the belief it would bring in more funding. Mason is as dedicated as he is wrong.

Three years later and the loan was called in. Amazingly, despite this being a part of the conditions of the loan, the management of STFC were taken by surprise. Adding in the loss of the Treasury mechanism that had insulated government institutions from the vagaries of currency fluctuations, this plunged the council into a second, more serious budget crisis – and a row with the science minister Lord Drayson.

Now, as we head towards a new quiet in the storm, researchers should be aware that the same man who took the decisions that left the council that unprepared remains at the helm. Indeed he does so not because he took action, but because no action was taken against him. Twice. No matter what structural fixes are applied, this is the single most important long term risk the field of astronomy takes.

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