Monday, 31 December 2012

Lowering the flag for the last time

Well, today is an end of an era. The decision was made some time ago, but the UK STFC have ended their participation in the Gemini Observatory today. Not only does this make the UK look bad - who wants to work with a country that's pulling out of so many science projects they've invested in for so many years? - it's created a big problem for Gemini as the UK's financial contribution was a significant part of Gemini's income and operating costs. As you know, the UK will also withdraw support and funding for UKIRT (Gemini's next door neighbour and where I work) at the end of September 2013 and then the JCMT in late 2014. 

Anyway, I was kindly invited to attend the Union Jack flag lowering ceremony this afternoon at Gemini's Hilo-based headquarters as the JAC's representative. Some of the snapshots I took are below.

All seven flags of the Gemini partner countries fly proudly outside the Gemini Hilo Headquarters at 3pm today.
Gemini North Headquarters.
The Union Jack starts to be lowered by Gemini staff members Gabriela and Claire.
Folding the flag - it will be sent back to the STFC in the UK.
Careful! Don't let the flag touch the ground!
The flag is handed to Markus Kissler-Patig, Gemini Director.
I hope the UK government and STFC are proud of this picture.

I was also handed a second Union Jack to give to my own boss when he returns from a trip. No photos of that I'm afraid, but although it was quite a sad occasion people were smiling (perhaps because they now have cut off all ties with the UK STFC?) and it was nice to catch up with many old friends, several of whom worked for UKIRT in the past!

Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Merry Christmas

2012 has not been my favourite year, the last few weeks up until October were up there with the worst of my life. But then Pam and I visited the UK and my spirits were lifted again. She had only spent a couple of days there 30 years ago and so I took her on a tour of all the places in the UK that meant something to me. Where I grew up, where my family vacationed when I was a kid, where I went to college and where I spent the last couple of years before moving to Hawaii.

It was the best trip of my life. I think Pam enjoyed it as well.

Then it was back to work and dealing with the possible closure of UKIRT, running operations, etc. And then the utterly horrible, stomach-churning, distressing news from Newtown Connecticut. Twenty small kids shot dead along with the teachers that tried to protect them.

I have never felt so upset and I have yet to find a way to deal with the feelings I have. I love America, but how could this happen here? Not your normal shooting spree, that's terrible enough, but to shoot so many young children and their teachers?

Why? The country I moved to, one I love, with so many wonderful people, has people that can do this? Every day I meet people who want to help, have a chat in the store, joke about the weather, criticize my choice of beer or accent while giving me a high five on the way out. Wonderful people who want to stay in touch when I meet them in a distant hotel bar, offers of Thanksgiving dinners with people I've never met, people who go out of their way to help a stranded motorist at the side of the highway.

And then Newtown. 


I'm sorry I haven't been posting here much, but perhaps you might like to watch a video which I always find helpful when I feel low. I know Pam will like it, several shots of the UK countryside! The music, Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings is my favourite piece of music and the poem is wonderful and moving.

Merry Christmas everyone,


Thursday, 5 July 2012

UKIRT discovers "impossible" binary stars

Artist's impression of the two red dwarfs orbiting each other (credit: J. Pinfield, for the RoPACS network).

Despite facing closure UKIRT continues to produce superb scientific discoveries. In this case a pair of red dwarfs with impossibly tight orbits.

`"To our complete surprise, we found several red dwarf binaries with orbital periods significantly shorter than the 5 hour cut-off found for Sun-like stars, something previously thought to be impossible", said Bas Nefs from Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands, lead author of the paper. "It means that we have to rethink how these close-in binaries form and evolve."

Since stars shrink in size early in their lifetime, the fact that these very tight binaries exist means that their orbits must also have shrunk as well since their birth, otherwise the stars would have been in contact early on and have merged. However, it is not at all clear how these orbits could have shrunk by so much.'

For more, see the full RAS press release.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

I'm so pathetic

I haven't taken my camera with me, so this is Dam Square photographed by someone else. I'm staying just to the right in a quirky but very nice hotel. The smell of cannabis on the street outside reminds me of my student days but I have yet to find a city quite like this. It's just brilliant - countless restaurants and bars all within walking distance and an opportunity to forget all the crap that's going on right now.

Then again I have to give a talk about how wonderful UKIRT is despite dealing with the shut-down notice we got a month or so ago from the STFC. The presentation is scheduled for Friday afternoon, the penultimate talk on a Friday evening when everyone has gone home. Wonderful. I have a really good joke to tell as well...

Wednesday, 6 June 2012

STFC - spending more money for less science

What would you do given the following choice?
  1. You have two telescopes that between them deliver more science than any other observatory in the world. You can cut the funding for one of them but the cost of the remaining telescope increases so it costs the same as running both together. The result is less science but the amount of money spent doesn't change. Science becomes more expensive.
  2. You have two telescopes that between them deliver more science than anyone else in the world. You can keep both telescopes running until a cut-off date sometime in the future. It costs the same as running only one of them, but the science is doubled (actually, tripled going by current publication rates).

I'm curious if anyone else comes up with the same decision as the UK STFC, which is to adopt option 1.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012


From an STFC press release:

"Acting on advice and recommendations from its Science Board, Council has now agreed to:

• extend operation of JCMT to end September 2014, to allow for completion of the agreed science programme for the SCUBA-2 instrument on the JCMT;

• cease STFC support for the operation of UKIRT from end September 2013, a year after the completion of its current survey programme;

• extend operations of ING initially until March 2015, which will provide additional time for negotiations with existing partners with the goal of retaining continued access to the northern sky for UK astronomers."

The reason for ending support for UKIRT a year earlier than JCMT is unclear since there are no savings to be made here, UKIRT essentially comes for free as long as the JCMT is supported. The opportunity to take a year's worth of free data using one of the most scientifically productive telescopes on the planet is being thrown away. As are our jobs.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

UKIRT: on the way to another new record

Apologies for the lack of posts recently. This will continue I'm afraid because I'm just too busy. Every so often, however, there's a bit of news that really needs to be shared and it's UKIRT's productivity this time. I still can't believe these numbers are correct but so far everything checks out. We've become a stunningly productive observatory in the last few years and as long as the JCMT is funded with its revolutionary new instrument, SCUBA-2, this stuff comes for free.

UKIRT's productivity continues to rise

Friday, 6 April 2012

A babbling brook

We were on the way to California's wine country via a small country road and took a break to watch the water. I wish I'd packed a picnic...

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

On the boardwalk

A few more shots from Moonstone Beach including a reworked panorama although I'm still not happy with it. Have to learn to take off the polarizer when doing panoramas, it really makes the sky look weird...

On the boardwalk

On the beach

On the rocks (shaken, not stirred)

Back on the boardwalk

Sunday, 1 April 2012

A postcard from Cambria

This small coastal town in central California is turning out to be my "special place"! I can't wait to get back there. Beautiful scenery, friendly people and pretty much crime-free. A place to relax with your loved one and leave stress behind for a few days. Just a few miles inland are a gazillion wineries if that takes your fancy. Twenty miles north along the Pacific Coast Highway takes you up high and into the most stunning coastal scenery you can imagine or just potter around in Cambria and enjoy the beach, food, wine and wonderful company!

Friday, 30 March 2012

Just steps from the beach

Moonstone Beach, Cambria, California.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Quite a lot of stars

UKIRT made the news overnight. A press release was made at the National Astronomy Meeting in the UK entitled "Milky Way image reveals detail of a billion stars" which has led to dozens of news items around the world including this one at the BBC which was the number one most-read article for a while and is still the most shared as I write this. This is just one result of the work we have been doing for the last seven years (UKIDSS) and in this case shared with the VISTA survey which is doing an infrared survey of the southern hemisphere.

The picture above is just a tiny fraction of the sky covered in the image. You can play around with the entire billion-star image yourself by going to the online interactive tool hosted by the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. It was images similar to this that first attracted me to astronomy although back in those days they were optical rather than infrared! Still, just gazing at pictures of thousands of stars and nebulae as a little kid made me wonder just exactly what was out there and here I am, er, just a few years later, still wondering!

To put things in context, even though a billion stars sounds a rather large number, it's still just a fraction of the stars in our own Galaxy in which we believe there are 200 to 400 billion stars. Add to that there are probably about 200 billion galaxies in the universe you hopefully start to appreciate what an enormous place we live in and that we are literally a tiny and likely insignificant speck of dust in the grand scheme.

Incidentally I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that the UKIDSS consortium was recently awarded the Royal Astronomical Society Group Award. In another twist of fate, and one completely unexpected, the consortium agreed with the RAS to have a few individually named certificates made to "core" members of the project. The list includes some people who work at the UKIRT or worked there until recently: Andy Adamson, Luca Rizzi and Watson Varricatt. They all thoroughly deserve the award and certificate. Apparently I'm getting one as well although I'm not sure why, but I get to pick it up in May when I next visit Edinburgh. That'll be something nice to look forward to!

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Moonstone Beach

Moonstone Beach, Cambria, California.

Just got back from a long trip to the UK and California. Wonderful time but very tired. I've a few photos to work on but the above was done on a broken laptop during our stay in Cambria last week - not too bad I think! Best viewed by clicking on it to get the larger version.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Typical temperate typha

Or Bulrushes if you didn't want to look it up! Taken at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park on Sunday.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Beautiful England...

...or the countryside I really miss.

My wonderful host, June, took me off into the Yorkshire Dales and the Peak District on Saturday. The forecast was for clouds but it turned into the most beautiful day and I got to see the English countryside again.

Hawaii is beautiful, but I think England and the rest of the UK has some things going for it. In my younger days I think I might have hiked up that hill and then would then have seen somewhere just as stunning to hike to again...

Thursday, 1 March 2012

10 points to whoever...

...can guess what this is. Clue - it's from a Boston hotel room and no, I've never seen one either before today.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Jet lag beckons...

Another long trip is ahead; half work, half vacation. I miss working at the summit of Mauna Kea and taking pictures up there but a benefit of the position I now hold is a little more travel, especially back to the island where I grew up. To be honest I don't enjoy the actual travel because most of it involves US domestic airlines which quite frankly suck more than a tuned-up vacuum cleaner but being in other places is something I've always enjoyed.

So, it's:

and onto:

and if you can't guess which city/university I mean, this might help:

Then it's back to:

and then some quality vacation time in:

The camera's coming with me. I hope to have some nice shots when I get back!

Monday, 20 February 2012

It was a dark and stormy night...

At the end of Ala Heiau Road in Puna on a wintry evening. This place is about two miles south of where I live and believe it or not I had never visited before.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Run away, run away!

This was very nearly the last photo I ever took! There's a high surf advisory for the east cost of Hawaii Island and thought I'd take a picture or two of the surf at sunset. This particular place is somewhere I haven't visited before so was a little wary about where I should stand but thought I'd found a safe enough place. Unfortunately the wind combined with the spray made it virtually impossible to take any decent pictures, I had to clean the lense every couple of minutes so just relaxed and watched the surf instead with the camera ready.

It was getting really dark so decided I'd try one or two more shots at high ISO (hence the noise in the picture) but the spray was just too bad. Then I noticed the highest set on its way in so tried to see if I could capture it - Bad Idea.

The first wave almost got me and the second one would have if I hadn't run away - not an easy thing to do in flip-flops (why I keep wearing them on slippery rocks is something I keep asking myself).

Hopefully the camera has survived - it seems to still be working but it needed a thorough clean. I'm going back to this spot though - I think this might be a splendid place at sunrise!

The biggest waves of the evening on their way a few seconds before the picture above.

Fifteen minutes earlier - not my finest effort but was really just scouting this place out.

Never turn your back on the ocean.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Another record-breaking year for UKIRT

For the second year running UKIRT has smashed its own publication record. In 2010 118 papers were published using UKIRT data which beat the previous record by 34 papers, a quite remarkable achievement given all the cutbacks in recent years. The new count for 2011 has been released and the record has been broken again and not by a small amount - a total of 138 papers this time round. As you can imagine I'm very proud of the record and on a science-per-dollar basis UKIRT must be one of the most productive major international observatories in the world, perhaps the most productive.

A moonlit UKIRT in July 2011.

The JCMT also broke its own record with 103 papers published in 2011, again a remarkable result given much of JCMT's time recently has been spent commissioning SCUBA-2, so a much reduced time spent on taking science data (SCUBA-2 is now commissioned and performing excellently!).

I think everyone at the Joint Astronomy Centre should be very proud of their recent achievements!

Announcement by the JAC.

Press release by the STFC.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Just a bit of fun

Another couple of pictures from the trip to Ka'u and Whittington Beach Park, both HDR. The weather and time of day were so unphotogenic I thought I'd give HDR a go. My Picasa software (free Google photo software) had also undergone some upgrades hence the framing - was just trying it out!

Incidentally, the blogger gadget on the top right of this page is broken, it's supposed to link to my Flickr photostream but no longer does. It's been broken for a while and haven't seen a fix for the gadget yet but will try and come up with an alternative soon. Just click on my photostream if you really want to see it.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

A cloudy Ka'u coastline

This was the view looking south from Whittington Beach Park in Ka'u this afternoon. I've never been here before and can't figure out why. I know the view from atop the cliffs but for some reason never saw the turn-off into the beach park. A tad of research suggests the real name is Honu'apo Bay and Fish Ponds and there appears to be a lot of history behind this place although the view above is technically outside the park (as ever click on the picture to see a larger version).

I was up at 4am today and drove down to the Kalapana coast hoping to take some sunrise shots but when I got there it was still pitch black and the surf was high. The place I intended to use was being overrun by the waves and since there was only moonlight to go by I thought it a little too dangerous - "Astronomer goes missing in mysterious circumstances - only his flip-flops and lense cover found on a remote Puna beach" is a headline I've been trying to avoid over the years.

Thinking I'd find another spot I drove around for a bit but this is the east coast of Hawaii, so it started to rain and rain hard. Off home and back to bed then.

Anyway, come this afternoon I just wanted to get out for a bit so drove south into Ka'u and found some interesting places which I'll have to revisit. It felt wrong not taking a picture so there you have it, the one above.

This would be a fantastic place for photos at sunrise but it'd be a 3am start from my place to do that, so don't expect any too soon...

PS. It's actually a panorama and was a pain to put together, but didn't think that was worth mentioning!

PPS. The picture looks much nicer than I imagined here.

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

A little rest and relaxation in Puna

It's Sunday evening on the Puna coast roughly halfway between Kalapana and Kapoho and the place I go to relieve stress. Just before taking the photos I met a very interesting guy - retired and clearly well-off with a large house just above the shoreline. He used to be a photographer and cameraman and had worked for many of the major movie companies in the US and had clearly done quite well financially! It turned out he used to live and work in California and shared my love of the Monterey/Carmel area and the whole central California coastline. He was walking his dogs and clearing up the trash on the "beach" as he does every day. I hope to meet him again and maybe give him a print or two of these photos. His dogs were also super-friendly!

Rock pools and surf. The waves weren't too high but the water was very "messy" with no regular wave sets. It made timing interesting!

The sun was setting and made the colours interesting despite most of the lava rock being a light-sucking black.

One black & white shot because I thought it made things look a little more dramatic, but that wave almost got me!

A change of position because the waves were getting a little dangerous considering where I had perched myself. I kept looking out for whales since this is the height of the whale season but unfortunately saw none.

It was getting quite dark now so switched position again to take in the wonderful colours of sunset. And the blackness of the lava of course...

Puna is on the east side of the island so not great for sunset shots, but the sky and ocean can still take on magical colours at this time of day.

And that was it for the evening. A short drive back home, stress somewhat lowered and relieved to find I could still remember how to operate my camera...

As always, you can view larger versions of the pictures by clicking on them.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

A well-deserved award

The United Kingdom Infrared Telescope Infrared Deep Sky Survey (UKIDSS) won an award from the Royal Astronomical Society. It's a bit of the way down the page but it's a well-deserved award that reflects some pretty damn hard work lots of people have put in over the last few years. It doesn't include me of course, I'm just a grunt, but I like it that way...

Almost the same

There's a picture I saw in a recent edition of Outdoor Photographer, a magazine I've subscribed to for the last couple of years, that made me say "What the hell, that's my photo!". You can see the picture at the top of this article. My picture is above.

It wasn't my photo in the article but it looks as though the photographer took his photo from almost the same spot as I did last year. It's a nice photo and captures those crepuscular rays a regular reader will know I love, except I'm not blogging regularly these days so that's a bit of an oxymoron. Anyway, it got me thinking - why not just pick up the camera again and start taking some photos? Well, my camera is still in storage but I promise to bring it out soon. The photo in that article made me realise that I'm not a complete muggins when it comes to capturing the beautiful scenery here although the real reason I've not being active recently is that I've been too busy. I need to change that and get my life back into a proper perspective.

I'll also say that even if you prefer the picture in the article, at least I know how to keep my horizon straight!

Just a couple more from that trip to Maui. They've appeared on the blog before...

PS. I should add that the picture in the printed version of Outdoor Photographer looks much better than the online one and has had some extra processing done.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Steve Rawlings

I'm stunned, and so are many members of the astronomy community. Rather than hearing through the grapevine I just happened to read this article on the BBC site this morning about how Steve was found dead yesterday.

Steve was a good friend and was a regular UKIRT observer. I supported many of his runs and we spent a lot of time together both at the summit of Mauna Kea and having dinner and beers in Hilo. Steve stopped coming out to Hawaii a few years ago mainly because we switched to survey operations and had fewer visiting observers, but he always complained that when he visited it always snowed and he never got any observing time!

Steve will be missed by his many good friends at the UKIRT and JCMT and I'm sure around the world. He was a wonderful person and lots of fun to be with. We once talked about arranging a cricket match in Hilo against the local softball team and he was going to bring his cricket gear out and also arrange to get the game onto the local news! Unfortunately it never happened, but my main memory of him was us having fun, especially on the soccer field! (Scroll down to the report at the end of the newsletter - in the picture Steve is second from right in the front row and there's even a rare shot of me - front row centre in the blue top kneeling down).

I know everyone at the JAC, both current and ex-employees, send their heart-felt condolences to Steve's family and friends. This is such a shock.