Management, Money, Media

Wednesday was a busy day of politicking and schmoozing (as opposed to research and teaching, which is what I actually get paid to do).

I spent the morning at a meeting reviewing the current status of developments for the Planck Surveyor satellite here in the UK (Planck will measure the temperature of the Cosmic Microwave Background, relic radiation from the Big Bang). Unfortunately, as is common in these ambitious and exciting projects, not everything is quite going according to plan. We need to cool parts of the satellite down to a mere four degrees above absolute zero. This has become relatively easy to do in a laboratory, but is still very difficult up in space, where you have stringent requirements on size, weight and power and, most importantly, where you can't fix anything once it's been launched. So this part of the project is over budget, late, and indeed faced with technological problems (like, how do you build it so it can survive shocks equivalent to 3000 times the acceleration due to gravity?!).

Part of the problem is that scientists, despite thinking that we know how to do everything, are generally bad (or at least untrained) managers, and even worse “managees” -- we don't like being told the way to do things (I can certainly speak for myself here on both counts, but at least understanding that I have these problems might be the first step towards solving them.)

The rest of the day was much more pleasant. First, I went to a short meeting debriefing those of us who participated in the Royal Society's “MP-Scientist” pairing scheme. It was great to see and talk with my cohorts from November, and then we all headed down watch the wonderful Faraday Lecture by Professor Fran Balkwill on Ovarian Cancer, which was neither dry nor depressing. The evening ended with the “Scientists Meet the Media” party hosted at the Royal Society by the Daily Telegraph and Novartis (who paid for the champagne, apparently). There were scientists from crusty old white-haired Fellows of the Royal Society on down to youngish faculty members like me and media types from TV, newspapers, magazines and science journals. Power couple Gia and Brian were there, as were Adam Hart-Davies in a frightening bright blue suit, Robert Winston in a tux, all presided over by astrophysicist Lord Martin Rees, new president of the Society. We scientists tried to keep up, but the journalists did their best to live up to their hard-drinking reputation, aided by the free-flowing wine and very scarce food. Usually the scientists are the ones with the privileged information, but on a night like this, the journalists seemed to be in control, we scientists in full media-slut mode, our not-so-secret desire for fame, or at least recognition, on show.

Update: Here's a report from the Telegraph, focusing on the celebrities at their party...