...a blog by Richard Flowers

Friday, April 11, 2008

Day 2656: Jodrell Bank UPDATE


You may remember that a month ago I protested that the most important scientific instrument in Great Britain – or even THE WORLD, give or take a hadron collider at CERN and a neutrino observatory in Sudbury, Ontario – was under THREAT.

Well, this week there was new news, with two BBC programmes covering the calamity: The Sky at Night and the Newsnight at Night.

For the Newsnight Show, Ms Susan "mega" Watts reported on the brouhaha with an introduction that you may find EERILY FAMILIAR.

(Nothing wrong with that, though – there are worse jobs than being Newsnight's Unpaid Scientific Advisor… I wonder if I get a sprightly yellow roadster™!)

In The Sky at Night, available now – as the advert goes – on the BBC's iPlayer Sir Patrick Xylophone (Professor X!) told us all about Jodrell Bank's current work, the astonishingly exciting measurements of a pair of spinning quasars that are proving Mr Einstein's theory to a degree previously thought impossible, and then quizzed Mr the Astronomer Royal on what was going on.

(You might also be excited by the photography of a Gamma Ray Burst – at a million times brighter than a GALAXY, it's the cosmic phenomenon that makes a super-nova look like a far… bad-word in a bathtub!)

The good news is that Jodrell Bank is a bit less in danger than we thought, and Mr the Astronomer Royal seems to think that it will be saved. The bad news is that Mr Frown's new science-funding quango* messed up the funding in a big way and it might still put the tin hat on the eMerlin array (where you get radio telescopes from all over the country and link them up to the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank and make a super-telescope out of them – you know, the project on which they've already spent millions of pounds for the plugs).

(*This quango was made from two other quangos… probably by colliding them in CERN's super-collider.)

As Ms "mega" Watts explains in her piece, Mr Frown's precious "knowledge economy" depends on actual people WITH actual knowledge. So-called "big ticket" toys, like the Jodrell Bank telescopes, are what you need to attract the very best talents in practical and theoretical science, and you need to attract THEM so that they will inspire a generation of students who will go on to be the people who keep our economy going!

(Assuming Mr Frown hasn't FLAT-LINED it by then!)

BUT… I've said it before and I will probably say it again: the search for knowledge, the exploration of our universe and the quest to understand how it works and what it is made of… these things are GOOD in and of themselves.

As you may have noticed, I am not a particularly RELIGIOUS baby elephant, and so do not believe that our PURPOSE in being here is to sit on this rock singing praises to an invisible friend. In which case, we have to make OUR OWN purposes, and for me, that purpose is "finding stuff out".

In just the same as Radio Three enriches us and Tate Modern enriches us – not everyone wants to go there, but it is reassuring that you COULD – expanding our knowledge ENRICHES all of us. That makes it worth doing.

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