Hairy End to Beard of the Year 2014 poll forecast

Posted in Beards with tags , on December 20, 2014 by telescoper

telescoper:

Polls close at Midnight on Monday 22nd. It seems I even have a chance of winning! But whatever the finish, you can bet it won’t be smooth!

Originally posted on Kmflett's Blog:

Beard Liberation Front

Press release 19th December

Contact keith Flett 07803 167266

Hairy end to Beard of the Year 2014 poll forecast

contenders include Philip Wilton, Conchita Wurst & Billy Bragg

wiltonwurstbragg

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has said that with the final weekend of voting for Beard  of the Year 2014 underway, the poll looks set to get hairy.

The final weekend usually sees peak voting patterns and this year is expected to be no different.

Already around a 1000 people have cast their vote and many more are expected to do so in the next 3 days.

The on line poll ends at midnight on Monday 22nd December and the winner will be announced on 29thDecember

BLF Organiser Keith Flett said, The Award has run since 1995 and there is always a finally bristling of votes with the tallies of…

View original 112 more words

The Definition of Love

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on December 19, 2014 by telescoper

My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow’r depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d,
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

by Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)

 

Les limites de l’espace : une expérience de pensée

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on December 19, 2014 by telescoper

After my little jaunt to Paris earlier this week I thought I would try my hand at a blog post in French…

Et voila!

–0–

L’étude de la cosmologie implique le recours à des observations difficiles à réaliser, à des calculs détaillés ainsi qu’à une pensée créative, et la prise en compte des interactions complexes entre ces différents éléments. Personne ne peut, simplement en regardant l’univers, déterminer de façon immédiate ce dont il est précisément constitué et comment cela a été assemblé. Les cosmologues doivent émettre des hypothèses, faire des estimations des phénomènes que chacune de ces hypothèses implique, vérifier si ces phénomènes existent réellement, pour enfin affiner l’hypothèse en question ou bien l’abandonner et recommencer.

Prenez l’exemple du fond diffus cosmologique. Considéré comme le reliquat du Big Bang, il désigne le rayonnement qui imprègne l’univers tout entier et le plonge dans un bain de chaleur uniforme dans toutes les directions de l’espace. L’emploi du terme « chaleur » est un peu excessif puisque ce rayonnement est très faible et ne correspond qu’à une température de trois degrés au-dessus du zéro absolu. Il n’est pas facile à détecter ici, sur la Terre, où la température ambiante est bien plus élevée que cela, mais il s’agit en réalité de la forme dominante d’énergie électromagnétique dans l’univers. Nous sommes aujourd’hui relativement certains que le fond diffus cosmologique a été généré il y a quatorze milliards d’années environ, à une époque où la température de tout ce qui existait était encore plus élevée que celle de la surface du Soleil actuel. L’expansion de l’univers a dilué l’intensité de ce rayonnement primordial et ce que nous pouvons à présent observer se résume à une émission rémanente relativement faible.

Alors, comment est-il possible de conceptualiser tout cela ? Les astrophysiciens théoriques passent énormément de temps à essayer de donner du sens à des observations de phénomènes astronomiques lointains. En général, le premier problème à résoudre pour comprendre ce qui est en train de se passer est de réussir à déterminer à quel endroit exactement c’est en train de se passer, ce qui représente un véritable défi dans le cas d’objets astronomiques relativement proches – parce que même ceux-là sont déjà trop éloignés pour entrer dans le champ des techniques de mesure utilisées sur Terre – mais devient quasiment impossible à mesure que ce à quoi l’on s’intéresse est éloigné, et qu’il devient de plus en plus difficile d’obtenir la moindre mesure expérimentale directe de distance, quelle que soit la taille du télescope utilisé.

Cette lacune peut être comblée par l’élaboration d’un cadre théorique permettant de croiser des mesures indirectes. Ce processus est sans doute bien plus complexe que l’utilisation d’une règle ou d’un théodolite, mais il fait ses preuves et s’est avéré extrêmement efficace d’un point de vue scientifique.

Cette approche peut être illustrée à travers une expérience de pensée (Gedankenexperiment). Elle part de l’idée d’un horizon, un concept que l’on utilise énormément en cosmologie, mais traduit cette fois autant que possible en des expériences du quotidien plutôt qu’à travers les immenses échelles de temps et de distance en jeu en astrophysique. Albert Einstein aimait beaucoup les expériences de pensée de ce type, parce qu’elles permettent de comprendre comment des choses qui, de prime abord, semblent paradoxales, voire impossibles, peuvent s’avérer logiques si l’on y réfléchit de la bonne façon. Mais l’expérience de pensée n’est pas qu’un outil pédagogique. De nombreux exemples scientifiques d’expériences de pensée nous ont permis de comprendre comment il était possible de mesurer des choses que l’on n’aurait jamais imaginé mesurer, ou de voir des choses que l’on n’aurait jamais rêvé pouvoir voir. L’expérience de pensée dont il est question ici montre comment, en étudiant le fond diffus cosmologique, nous pouvons même, à présent, « voir » le Big Bang lui-même.

Imaginez-vous debout au milieu d’un champ. Le champ est plat et relativement vaste, si bien que vous ne pouvez pas distinguer ses limites, ni même savoir si elles existent. Le champ est uniformément rempli de personnes collées les unes aux autres qui se tiennent debout, côte à côte. Elles chantent toutes la même note, avec justesse, et avec la même puissance. Elles ont commencé à chanter à un moment donné dans un passé indéfini. Vous vous trouveriez là dans une situation sans aucun doute assez bruyante, un « bain » de bruit en quelque sorte, dans lequel des ondes sonores de même intensité parviendraient à vos oreilles de toutes les directions, de façon très similaire aux micro-ondes du fond diffus cosmologique décrit précédemment.

Supposons à présent que chaque chanteur est muni d’une montre et que toutes les montres sont synchronisées. Supposons alors qu’à un instant prédéterminé, à tout endroit du champ, tout le monde arrête soudainement de chanter et reste ensuite complètement muet. La première chose que vous remarqueriez est que tout devient beaucoup plus silencieux. Jusqu’à cet instant, vous perceviez les chanteurs les plus proches de vous comme étant les plus bruyants, et vous vous rendriez immédiatement compte du fait qu’ils se sont arrêtés de chanter. Mais est-ce que tout serait alors devenu absolument silencieux pour autant?

Le son se propage à une vitesse finie. Par conséquent, à l’instant où tout le monde s’est arrêté de chanter, des ondes sonores avaient déjà entamé leur traversée du champ pour parvenir à vos oreilles, et ces ondes arriveront quand même jusqu’à vous. Même si plus personne n’est en train de chanter, puisque tous ont cessé de chanter exactement au même instant, vous entendrez encore les notes venues de parties distantes du champ. Tout ne sera donc pas absolument silencieux ; il y aura un reliquat sonore de la période précédant l’arrêt total du chant, un reliquat venant de lieux distants, très lointains, et issu de moments du passé.

En réalité, la vitesse de propagation du son dans l’air est d’environ trois cent mètres par seconde, donc une seconde après que le chant ait cessé, vous entendrez encore le son émis par les chanteurs qui se trouvent à plus de trois cent mètres de vous. Après deux secondes, seules les notes chantées par les chanteurs situés à plus de six cent mètres de vous seront encore audibles, et ainsi de suite.

En suivant ce raisonnement, il devient évident qu’un cercle, « le cercle du dernier chant », s’est formé autour de vous, marquant ainsi une sorte de frontière. Aucun son ne parvient à vos oreilles depuis la partie du champ située à l’intérieur du cercle, mais des sons vous parviennent encore depuis la zone située à l’extérieur du cercle.
Ce cercle du dernier chant est une forme d’« horizon » : un horizon sonore en quelque sorte. Son rayon est défini mathématiquement comme le produit du temps passé depuis l’arrêt du chant par la vitesse du son. Au fur et à mesure que le temps passe, le rayon de l’horizon croît, donc le cercle semble s’étendre, et la frontière entre les zones intérieure et extérieure semble s’éloigner de vous. Du moment que le champ est suffisamment large et que votre ouïe est suffisamment fine, il y aura encore un horizon, même longtemps après que le chant ait cessé, et cet horizon vous indiquera ce que les gens étaient en train de chanter dans votre passé.

En quoi cela nous aide-t-il à comprendre le fond diffus cosmologique, me direz-vous ? Appliquer cette expérience de pensée à un contexte cosmologique nécessite quelques aménagements. En premier lieu, l’espace extra-atmosphérique est tridimensionnel, tandis que le champ de chanteurs est bidimensionnel. Cela signifie que dans le cas du fond diffus cosmologique, l’observateur est entouré par une surface sphérique et non par un cercle. En second lieu, nous avons affaire à la lumière (ondes électromagnétiques) et non au son (ondes sonores), et la lumière se propage environ un million de fois plus vite que le son. Bien que les distances à considérer soient mesurées en années-lumière et non en mètres, il ne s’agit là que d’une différence quantitative et non qualitative. Enfin, il faut considérer les chanteurs comme des atomes, suffisamment chauds pour absorber, renvoyer et disperser un rayonnement. Au fur et à mesure de l’expansion de l’univers, ces atomes se refroidissent. Et de façon relativement soudaine, à une température bien définie, ils vont atteindre un point où ils ne seront plus en mesure de faire tout cela. L’univers n’arrête pas de chanter, mais il cesse de se disperser.

En résumé, nous avons autour de nous dans l’espace, à une distance d’environ quatorze milliards d’années-lumière, une surface de dernière dispersion. Il s’agit là d’une manifestation de la vitesse finie à laquelle la lumière peut communiquer de l’information, plutôt que d’une frontière physique, mais elle peut être observée comme s’il s’agissait de la surface d’une étoile ou d’un autre corps matériel. La seule différence, c’est que nous étudions généralement les étoiles de l’extérieur, tandis qu’en matière de cosmologie, nous nous plaçons à l’intérieur de l’univers, et regardons vers l’extérieur.

Réfléchir en ces termes au fond diffus cosmologique nous révèle que le Big Bang est en fait tout autour de nous.

–0–

To be honest I have to admit that I wrote this piece in English, and it was translated for me by Geoffrey Garrison of Studio Olafur Eliasson.

That Was The REF That Was..

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on December 18, 2014 by telescoper

I feel obliged to comment on the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) that were announced today. Actually, I knew about them yesterday but the news was under embargo until one minute past midnight by which time I was tucked up in bed.

The results for the two Units of Assessment relevant to the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences are available online here for Mathematical Sciences and here for Physics and Astronomy.

To give some background: the overall REF score for a Department is obtained by adding three different components: outputs (quality of research papers); impact (referrring to the impact beyond academia); and environment (which measures such things as grant income, numbers of PhD students and general infrastructure). These are weighted at 65%, 20% and 15% respectively.

Scores are assigned to these categories, e.g. for submitted outputs (usually four per staff member) on a scale of 4* (world-leading), 3* (internationally excellent), 2* (internationally recognised), 1* (nationally recognised) and unclassified and impact on a scale 4* (outstanding), 3* (very considerable), 2* (considerable), 1* (recognised but modest) and unclassified. Impact cases had to be submitted based on the number of staff submitted: two up to 15 staff, three between 15 and 25 and increasing in a like manner with increasing numbers.

The REF will control the allocation of funding in a manner yet to be decided in detail, but it is generally thought that anything scoring 2* or less will attract no funding (so the phrase “internationally recognised” really means “worthless” in the REF, as does “considerable” when applied to impact). It is also thought likely that funding will be heavily weighted towards 4* , perhaps with a ratio of 9:1 between 4* and 3*.

We knew that this REF would be difficult for the School and our fears were born out for both the Department of Mathematics or the Department of Physics and Astronomy because both departments grew considerably (by about 50%) during the course of 2013, largely in response to increased student numbers. New staff can bring outputs from elsewhere, but not impact. The research underpinning the impact has to have been done by staff working in the institution in question. And therein lies the rub for Sussex…

To take the Department of Physics and Astronomy, as an example, last year we increased staff numbers from about 23 to about 38. But the 15 new staff members could not bring any impact with them. Lacking sufficient impact cases to submit more, we were obliged to restrict our submission to fewer than 25. To make matters worse our impact cases were not graded very highly, with only 13.3% of the submission graded 4* and 13.4% graded 3*.

The outputs from Physics & Astronomy at Sussex were very good, with 93% graded 3* or 4*. That’s a higher fraction than Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College and UCL in fact, and with a Grade Point Average of 3.10. Most other departments also submitted very good outputs – not surprisingly because the UK is actually pretty good at Physics – so the output scores are very highly bunched and a small difference in GPA means a large number of places in the rankings. The impact scores, however, have a much wider dispersion, with the result that despite the relatively small percentage contribution they have a large effect on overall rankings. As a consequence, overall, Sussex Physics & Astronomy slipped down from 14th in the RAE to 34th place in the REF (based on a Grade Point Average). Disappointing to say the least, but we’re not the only fallers. In the 2008 RAE the top-rated physics department was Lancaster; this time round they are 27th.

I now find myself in a situation eerily reminiscent of that I found myself facing in Cardiff after the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise, the forerunner of the REF. Having been through that experience I’m a hardened to disappointments and at least can take heart from Cardiff’s performance this time round. Spirits were very low there after the RAE, but a thorough post-mortem, astute investment in new research areas, and determined preparations for this REF have paid dividends: they have climbed to 6th place this time round. That gives me the chance not only to congratulate my former colleagues there for their excellent result but also to use them as an example for what we at Sussex have to do for next time. An even more remarkable success story is Strathclyde, 34th in the last RAE and now top of the REF table. Congratulations to them too!

Fortunately our strategy is already in hand. The new staff have already started working towards the next REF (widely thought to be likely to happen in 2020) and we are about to start a brand new research activity in experimental physics next year. We will be in a much better position to generate research impact as we diversify our portfolio so that it is not as strongly dominated by “blue skies” research, such as particle physics and astronomy, for which it is much harder to demonstrate economic impact.

I was fully aware of the challenges facing Physics & Astronomy at Sussex when I moved here in February 2013, but with the REF submission made later the same year there was little I could do to alter the situation. Fortunately the University of Sussex management realises that we have to play a long game in Physics and has been very supportive of our continued strategic growth. The result of the 2014 REF result is a setback but it does demonstrate that the stategy we have already embarked upon is the right one.

Roll on 2020!

Anthem for Doomed Academics

Posted in Poetry, Science Politics with tags , , on December 17, 2014 by telescoper

telescoper:

Well, not long now until the announcement of the results of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework are known publicly. I’ll post something in the way of a personal reflection tomorrow, as long as I haven’t thrown myself off Brighton Pier by then. In the meantime, I couldn’t resist sharing this brilliant parody of Wilfred Owen I found via Twitter…

Originally posted on Stumbling with Confidence:

(This has been written as the momentous results of the Research Excellence Framework, known to all and sundry as the dreaded REF, are about to be announced, and as careers hang in the balance depending on who are the winners and losers.)

Anthem for Doomed Academics

(with apologies to Wilfred Owen)

What lasting hell for these who try as authors?
Only the monstrous anger of the dons.
Only the stuttering academic’s crippled cursor
Can patter out career horizons.
No metrics now for them; no citations nor reviews;
Nor any voice of warning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing peers;
And lost opportunities calling them from sad HEIs.
What meetings may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hand of managers but in their eyes
Shall shine the unholy glimmers of goodbyes.
The cost of student fees shall be their pall;
Their inheritance the frustrations…

View original 11 more words

Contact

Posted in Art with tags , , , on December 16, 2014 by telescoper

As I mentioned in my previous post, yesterday evening  I attended the opening of a new show at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. The first thing to say is that the Fondation Louis Vuitton building, designed by Frank Gehry, is an absolutely amazing structure. It was dark and rainy when I arrived there yesterday and I failed to get any decent pictures of the outside but if you google around you will see what I mean. The interior of the building is an extraordinary as the outside; indeed, it’s such a complex topology that the distinction between inside and outside gets completely lost. It’s definitely a work of art in its own right and enormous fun to wander around, although some of the terraces and balconies are not suitable for those of us who are afraid of heights especially since the only barriers are transparent.

Anyway, the installation I mainly went to see, by Olafur Eliasson,  called Contact, is built around two large spaces on the lower ground floor of the Fondation Louis Vuitton building. The first room is semi-circular in shape and darkened. Along what would be the diameter were it a full circle there is a mirror, just in front of the centre of which there is a bright light surrounded by metallic structure in the form of a mesh. The light illuminates a strip of the circular wall, with darkness above and below, and not only casts a shadow of the mesh against the curved wall but also does the same for the people in the room. The radius of the semicircle is about 25 metres so the room can accommodate many people.

First impressions entering this space are quite strange. First, the room seems to be exactly circular. Then you realise there is a mirror and the mixture of geometrical and human shadows on the circular section of wall. Once you have taken in the true geometry, however, there is stull the fun of watching how people behave within it. Like many of Olafur’s works, this one is as much created by the people who enter the room as it is by the artist.

My phone wasn’t really up to taking pictures of this – and in any case it’s something to be experience rather than seen in a photograph, but here are some attempts. In this one,  very large shadow in the middle is mine:

contact_4

contact_5

contact_6

The second room is a quadrant rather than a semicircle, with mirrors along the two straight edges creating the impression of a complete circle. This time, instead of a single point of light in the centre there is a horizontal illuminated stripe of an intense orange-red which, in the mirrors, creates in the viewer the impression of being in the middle of a ring of light.

My first impression when I entered this part of the installation was to recall some of the lighting effects near the end of the film Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

contact_1

contact_2

This is evocative of attempts that have been made from time to time to construct cosmological models with a compact topology, such as a finite flat space with its edges identified to form a torus.

In between these two large spaces there are a number of smaller pieces involving curved mirrors devices that invert and otherwise distort the images of people moving around inside the exhibition, one in particular producing an amazing holographic effect. Knowing how these things work does not diminish their power to amaze and to make you want to reach out and try to touch what is not really there..

contact_3

Anyway, that’s all just a taster. You really have to see it to appreciate it. It’s a show that asks very interesting questions about we use light in order to perceive space and indeed how we construct space itself through our own imagination.

Arrivé à Paris

Posted in Art with tags , , , on December 15, 2014 by telescoper

Well, here I am in a misty and murky and rather cold Paris. My first trip on the Eurostar from St Pancras as it happens. I’ve used the train to get to Paris before, but the last time was a long time ago when it departed from a temporary station at Waterloo. Anyway, there’s a direct train from Brighton to St Pancras International. Although it was about half an hour late, I still had time for a bite to eat before boarding. The train was pretty full, but ran on time and I got into Gare du Nord just before 4pm local time. A short (and inexpensive) trip on the Metro brought me to the hotel where I’ll be staying the night.

There is a conference going on in Paris this week about Planck but that’s not why I’m here. In fact I’m attending the opening of “Contact”, an exhibition by Olafur Eliasson at the Fondation Louis Vuitton.

olafur

I was toying with the idea of combining this event with the Planck meeting, but (a) I’ve got too much to do to stay for the whole week and (b) I don’t think there’ll be much new at the Planck meeting anyway.

Anyway, Olafur very kindly asked me to write something for the  catalogue, as the exhibition has something of an astronomical theme and I guess that’s why I got the VIP invitation. There’s something called a cocktail dinatoire afterwards which I presume involves large amounts of alcohol. That may fortify me for the impending REF results, which are due out later this week..

Anyway, I’ll post about the exhibition if I get time tomorrow morning before the  journey home. It doesn’t open for the general public until Wednesday 17th December, by the way, in case you’re in Paris and thinking of taking a look for yourself.

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