Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Odds and Ends: Tucson edition

This week I am in Tucson, visiting collaborators at Steward Observatory.  We are working on some fairly technical and involved issues, so I won't try and describe it here quite yet.  And, since I'm here to work on those tricky issues, I won't have a lot of time for blogging.  So, in the meantime, here are some short tidbits:

  • Catch up on some of the best of last week's blogs with the 152nd edition of the Carnival of Space, hosted this week by Ryan at the Martian Chronicles.
  • Last week, in the Discovery Channel's new series Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking, Stephen Hawking warned that we may not want to try and communicate with extraterrestrials, as they might come here to kill us all and steal our resources.  It should be noted that Hawking is not the first person to suggest this; I've heard this argument many times.  I think Hawking's point, that space-faring aliens would be so advanced that they may not respect us as an intelligent species, is quite possible, especially when we look at human history.    Universe Today has posted an interview that with Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson that appeared on CNN where Dr. Tyson discusses Hawking's opinion from a sociological standpoint.  He also mentions the cold, honest truth: we have no idea what an alien intelligence would be like.
  • However, while we may not need to fear aliens, we may need to fear black holes.  And not tiny black holes like the Large Hadron Collider won't make, we're talking black holes with millions to billions of times the mass of the sun.
  • I must be scowling when I go in to restaurants and so be placed in the angry section of the restaurant.  Yesterday at a Cracker Barrel in Goodyear, Arizona, a couple of men at the table next to me were making horribly misogynistic comments.  One of the men even refused to use feminine pronouns to refer to women.  It was very uncomfortable to listen to; thank goodness they finished their meal shortly after I arrived.    Today, at Tucson's El Charro, a  guy at the next table were laughing about how his dad used to mess with a "flaming liberal *$#%#@ astronomy professor" by training lights on the telescope as often as possible.  Seriously.   And this guy found it uproariously funny -- I think that's just kinda weird.
  • Speaking of weird, The Onion reports that scientists have found that dinosaurs aren't extinct; they're just hiding.  I thought there must be something lurking in the shadows.


  1. If you ask me, those "people" you've run into sound a lot like dinosaurs themselves. ;)

  2. Anonymous11:44 AM

    I hold Dr Steven Hawking in great reverence when it comes to physics and cosmology. However, I'd go with Carl Sagan on the issue of predatory aliens.

    For a visit by them, they'd most probably have had to mastered interstellar travel and would have to have technology centuries or millennia ahead of us. To quote Arthur C Clarke, to us their technology would be almost indistinguishable from magic, and to have survived so long they would be equally as advanced in their morals, ethics, culture, economics and attitudes and the way that they care for each other and other species.

    Even if they were aggressive, why would such an advanced civilisation want to raid earth for its resources, or want to abduct humans for gastronic purposes? The freightage would be just too high and it's debateable our DNA would be digestable... besides which, if they this advanced and that desperate to eat us, surely they would just use a replicator!!!

  3. Anonymous1:55 AM

    Hi Professor Astronomy!

    I work in Tucson as an engineer for a nearby observatory. Based on my experience working here, the "flaming liberal *$#%#@ astronomy professor" might have earned it-- not by being liberal, but by being incredibly arrogant.

    There are times when I have left work early because I couldn't unclench my fists. It is incredible how stupidly smart people can act. The arrogance is less surprising but just as blinding. Engineers and techs here are frequently ordered around like a road maintenance crew. No matter that an engineer can *also* have a PhD.

    Some (not all) of the astronomers and professionals here (Steward) are just used to being right all the time. They are "experts" and know how it should be done, often because that is the way it has been done in the past. The reality is that performance goals change. And the designs have to change to match. But try telling that to someone with "decades of experience" as an astronomer.... but little modern engineering experience.

    (If you take nothing else from this post, take this: Some of the engineering decisions made by non-engineers here are *breathtakingly* stupid. And I mean "grounds for dismissal" stupid for an engineer. I am not exaggerating.)

    Someone brought up "dinosaurs" above. That is a good description of some of the telescopes and other pojects that I have worked on. And I think it is (and will be) a key contribution to the death of astronomy in the US. Just because it worked in the 70s does not mean it is appropriate now! (Incidentally, this same mindset is killing other industries where I have worked.)

    At my site, the "science" is limited to astronomy. Scientific progress in engineering-- materials, controls, structures, instrumentation, et cetera is willfully ignored to keep the risk low and the schedule tight-- ultimately at the expense of performance.

    I imagine that a customer or sponsor with engineering advisors would be skeptical of dinosaur-old engineering regardless of the low cost. As a SETA, I would have advised them to pull funding.

    As for your AZ experience, I'm pretty much in the middle politically. But the atmosphere around academics can be very liberal-- and some academics tend to be outspoken about it.

    In practice, it's pretty hard to have respect for your employers, managers, coworkers and so forth when they are openly disrepectful to you.
    At a big company, neutrality and sensitvity is practically a job requirement. But in an academic setting?... So outspokenly "liberal" professors should in general expect to get some crap now and then. Outspokenly conservative people on campus already get crap. :-D

    Lots of anti-telescope sentiment here too, which surprised me. You might have run into some of the folks who were against the Large Binocular Telescope for instance. I think the thought is that it desacrated the land it was built on. There are some anti-telescope pages; google 'em. Desacration, waste of money, you name it; some people here don't like telescopes and astronomers.

    I will be leaving my post soon for better work. I would have loved to bring my engineering experience to a telescope to improve performance. But there just isn't any room in the budget or schedule to do so. And the resistance to deviating from formulas that "worked for Keck" is just too frustrating to justify staying.

    But I wish you and the rest of the astronomers here the best of luck! There is some great science coming through.