Friday, 2 December 2011

Life, the Universe and Everything: STFC Publishes Its Roadmap

For anyone who uses Twitter on a regular basis, you know the situation. A gnomic tweet appears on your timeline, and you find yourself having to find out more. In my case it was from the STFC feed, @STFC_matters: 'have you seen the STFC Science Roadmap?' Of course, my natural reaction was to reply with a facetious 'why, have you lost it? I'm sure I saw it in the glove compartment, under that tin of travel sweets.'

But I was intrigued, and wanted to find out more. I like the idea of roadmaps, which provide certainty and direction. I was wondering what directions I could get from the STFC, given that it deals with astronomy, particle and nuclear physics. 'Excuse me mate: could you tell me the way to Alpha Centuri?' 'Sure, no worries: head for Betlelgeuse, take a left at Andromeda and you can't miss it'.

As to certainty, that seems to be something of a moot point in particle physics at the moment, given that the embarrassing lack of the Higgs Boson threatens to undermine all physics. Maybe the Higgs Boson is in the same place as the STFC Science Roadmap? Have they not tried retracing their steps?

Anyway, I thought it would be worth having a look at the Roadmap itself. I'd encourage you all to have a look too. I love it because it conveys that childlike sense of wonder that you have about science, before it's drained out of you at secondary school through boring afternoons watching chemistry practicals going wrong. 'What you should have seen, boys, is an exothermic reaction that created a spectrum of iridescent colour, accompanied by a nuclear boom that ushered in visions of an unseen universe just beyond our reach. If you got a dull, muddy mixture and a muted pop then you have failed to follow your worksheet properly. Have a detention.'

No, the STFC has reignited the majesty of science for me. However, I am slightly surprised at the simplicity of the questions around which the Roadmap is built:
  • How did the universe begin and how is it evolving?
  • How do stars and planetary systems develop and is life unique to our planet?
  • What are the fundamental constituents and fabric of the universe and how do they interact?
  • How do we explore and understand the extremes of the universe?
Wow! Surely to get answers to questions of this magnitude it requires a mix of undergraduates, late nights and large amounts of mind altering substances? It would save STFC an awful lot of money and who knows? We may have the answers by dawn. Either that or we'll be overrun with dazed, barefoot students wandering around with guitars, not entirely sure how they got here. Which brings us right back to those key STFC questions...

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