Spending pounds and bending light (two ways)

I spent the early part of the week in Sheffield at the first meeting of the Institute of Physics Astroparticle Physics Group. There were talks on the search for the Dark Matter, gravitational waves, neutrino astrophysics, gamma-ray astrophsyics, and, of course, cosmology. All of this sometimes goes by the name “non-accelerator particle physics”: trying to learn about the basic constituents of the Universe in way other than smashing particles against one another at high speeds in a particle accelerator. Aside from the excellent science, we had the conference dinner at the Kelham Island Museum, which had some great machines from Sheffield’s industrial past (the UK’s equivalent of Pittsburgh).

(An aside: I’ll go along with Clifford’s observations that the UK is woefully, frighteningly, ridiculously expensive. It cost me £120 to get between London and Sheffield.)

Another distraction from the science was a discussion of the recent announcement that the UK government wants to reorganize the funding of both particle physics and astrophysics, especially as they relate to so-called “large facilities”, such as big telescopes and the aforementioned particle accelerators. The heads of the current Particle Physics and Astrophysics Research Council (PPARC) and the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) got together last week to respond to the government and endorse the possible changes, and to nudge them in some specific directions. The worry, however, is that the progeny of these two councils would embody the worst of both worlds: big, unweildy, badly managed, and driven more by industrial applications than science. Indeed, the Royal Astronomical Society has produced its own response to the government, and reacted somewhat warily to the PPARC/CCLRC paper: science must remain at the forefront, not the facilities.

The RAS is now headed by Michael Rowan-Robinson, my colleague at Imperial. Another Imperial colleague, Professor Sir John Pendry, has been in the news recently for his part in developing “metamaterials” with weird properties such as the ability to bend light around them, making them appear invisible (but invisibility to radar — stealth technology —is more likely to be developed before one that could make someone invisible in visible light).