Bris Science again


*********** We believe the Universe began in a Big Bang, and is expanding around us. How Big and Old is the Universe? What is in the Universe, and how will it End? Brian will describe how we have used exploding stars, known as supernovae, to track the expansion of the Universe back some 10 Billion years into the past to answer these and other questions.

Brian Schmidt, an astronomer and Federation Fellow from the Mount Stromlo Observatory at the Australian National University, uses distant supernovae to study the Universe. He led a group that discovered that the Universe is expanding at an accelerating rate – a discovery that was named Science Magazine’s Breakthrough of the Year in 1998.

DATE: Monday, May 29

TIME: 6:30pm to 7:30pm (doors open at 6:00pm); complimentary wine, soft drinks, and nibblies follow

VENUE: Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts (420 Brunswick St, Fortitude Valley; see for a map; parking is available on Berwick St next door)

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Where are the new ideas ?

Andrew Norton at Catallaxy has an interesting piece responding to a claim by Dennis Glover that rightwing thinktanks are much better funded than their leftwing counterparts. He makes the contrary argument that the universities represent a left equivalent, a claim which I don’t think stands up to the close examination it gets at Larvatus Prodeo.

More interesting, though is Norton’s characterisation of the state of the debate

Since most of the institutions of the social democratic state are still in place, social democratic ideas are perhaps going to seem less exciting than those of their opponents on the right or the left. They are about adaptation and fine-tuning more than throwing it all out and starting again. …. The right doesn’t have ideas because it has think-tanks, it has think-tanks because it has ideas that need promoting

This was a pretty accurate description of the situation in the 1980s and early 1990s, but it has ceased to be so. The right hasn’t had any new ideas for some time, and the policy debate between social democrats and neoliberals has been a stalemate for most of the last decade.
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Wikipedia work

Just after I posted last time appealing for help on Wikipedia, I got an email from Mark Horridge, who had contributed an article on Computable general equilibrium, one of the items I was asking about. There are still almost unlimited opportunities to contribute though. Here’s a list of stubs (short articles needing expansion). And there are lots of topics that don’t have an article at all.

There’s a bit of a learning curve in editing Wikipedia, but if you’d like to make a contribution without going through this, send me a few paras of text on a relevant topic and I’ll post it for you.

Also, a renewed call for help with Folding @Home. It’s very worthwhile and doesn’t seem to slow the computer down at all.

Looking after our own backyard

Glenn Milne has a piece in today’s Oz making a clear and convincing argument that Labor’s strategy of focusing our defence efforts on our immediate neighborhood is right, and the government’s expeditionary force strategy is wrong. He endorses all the key arguments of opponents of the Iraq war:

• Iraq: Our involvement has compromised, not improved, Australia’s security. We have no rational exit strategy because there is no political or military solution in sight.

• WMDs: They didn’t exist, undermining the single most important rationale for going to war.

• The terrorist threat: Howard argued that our involvement in Iraq would reduce the threat to Australia. Instead Iraq has become the training ground for the next generation of terrorists, to be deployed at will. …

• And finally the AWB: Stripped of the niceties, we bombed Saddam one day and bankrolled him the next[1]

I can’t recall anything at all like this from Milne in the past (feel free to correct me), which raises the question of whether there’s some sort of hidden agenda. The obvious explanation, given that Milne is normally viewed as a spokesman for Costello, is that this is something to do with the latest leadership rumours, though it’s hard to see exactly what.

A more Machiavellian explanation occurs to me. Howard’s visit to Bush is not going to be as cosy as usual, since Bush undoubtedly wants yet more troops and we are, as Milne points out, already overcommitted. How better to stress this point to Bush than to have it being made (in effect) by Costello, in a way that suggests that Australia could be looking at pulling out of the Coalition of the Willing. On this view, the two are now working together.

Does anyone have any other ideas, or has Milne just seen the light?

Update Tim Dunlop has more

fn1. Actually, the other way around, I think. But the point is right, however hard most supporters of the war here have tried to ignore it.

What I’ve been reading

I’ve been reading a fair bit of science fiction lately, and thinking about doing another preview of the contenders for the Hugos for best novel. Of those I’ve read so far, Accelerando by Charles Stross is definitely the pick. It’s the ultimate Singularity novel (at least assuming it’s a novel). It’s super-evolved lobsters and feral abaci make for something that’s much more readable and, paradoxically, more convincing than Kurzweil’s book on the topic, which I reviewed a while back.

Spin by Robert Charles Wilson is also based on the Singularity, but much more of a traditional hard SF novel in form. The earth is mysteriously sealed off from the rest of the universe by a barrier within which the passage of time is drastically slowed. I enjoyed it, but it doesn’t stand up to comparison with Accelerando.

A Feast for Crows is Volume 4 in the epic fantasy sequence A Ring of Ice and Fire. I started gamely enough, and the opening chapters held my interest, but after 100 pages nothing had happened except conversations between various characters about events that had presumably taken place in Volume 3. I cheered up when I noticed that there was a dramatis personae at the back, but then realised that the list itself ran for many pages and included hundreds of characters I hadn’t yet encountered. The style is engaging, and the series has a lot of fans, but it’s clear that if you want to tackle it, you have to start at the beginning of the series. And, just as any long book has some necessary slow bits where the various threads are gathered, so any multi-volume epic has some slow moving volumes. Nothing wrong with that, but the result is not, in my view, a candidate for a Hugo award – maybe a separate category is needed.

Weekend reflections

Weekend Reflections is on again. Please comment on any topic of interest (civilised discussion and no coarse language, please). Feel free to put in contributions more lengthy than for the Monday Message Board or standard comments.

Another request for help

Having seen the abilities of the team of crack fact(oid)checkers here, I can’t resist the temptation to ask for more help. I’m planning on writing something on higher education. My starting point is the belief that the squeeze on universities, driven in part by the desire to force them to rely more on full-fee paying domestic students, has resulted in very little growth in domestic undergraduate numbers over the decade since the government was elected. But I’m having trouble getting consistent time-series on this. This report called Selected Higher Education Research Expenditure Statistics: 2000 supports my view for the period up to 2000, but after that, looking at the DEST site, I can only find annual cross-sections that don’t seem to be collected on a consistent basis. Can anyone give me consistent time series on domestic undergraduate numbers, and commencements. Better still is there a breakdown giving the number of HECS places and the number of full-fee places supported by FEE-HELP, on a basis comparable to the statistics up to 2000?

Update I found what I was looking for on the National Union of Students website. It’s over the page and needs some formatting. Money quote:

The number of subsidised places in 2007 will be roughly the same as they were in 1997. In terms of student access to HECS places a decade of Howard Government education reforms has amounted to standing still.

This is consistent with the partial data I already had.
The most recent data on full-fee places I could find was for 2002, when there about 6000 full-fee undergraduate places. Presumably that’s increased, but it seems clear that, as far as expanding access to higher education goes, the last decade has been almost completely wasted while the government chased a range of (mutually inconsistent) ideological hobby horses.
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