Odds, Ends and Admissions

Posted in Biographical, Education on April 12, 2014 by telescoper

Term has ended at last. These 12-week teaching terms we have at Sussex are quite exhausting, but we got there in the end. In fact, I much prefer doing all the teaching in one block like that instead of having to split it in order to accommodate the Easter holiday which happens when Easter is earlier in the year. It’s tiring, but worth it.

Teaching actually finished yesterday, but today we had yet another UCAS Applicant Visit Day on the Sussex University campus, with both Departments in my School (i.e. Mathematics and Physics & Astronomy) in action.  It’s been quite a nice day actually, which is no doubt part of the reason why today has been very busy. There’s only one more such visit day left – at the very end of April – and then we can sit back and wait until August, when the A-level results come out, to find out how many students we will be welcoming into the first year next year.

I’ve had other reasons for being especially tired over the last couple of days. On Thursday night we had the Sussex University Mathematics Society Annual staff-student ball, a very pleasant affair held in the splendid Hilton Metropole Hotel on Brighton’s seafront. I had planned to leave at a respectable hour as I had to work on Friday (yesterday), but ended up getting home well after 2am.

On Friday afternoon I went up to London for the regular Monthly Open Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society followed by dinner with the RAS Club, which was very pleasant but I didn’t get back to Brighton until after eleven. I was quite pleased that a bus arrived at the Station almost as soon as I reached the stop. About half-way home a lady got on the bus who was clearly in a tired and emotional state. As often seems to happen this person sat next to me. She proceeded to ask me if I’d like her to sing. I politely declined but she started anyway so I had an unwanted “musical” accompaniment for the rest of my journey. I wouldn’t have minded so much, but she had a terrible voice.

Then this morning I had to get up pretty early to get up to campus for our Applicant Visit Day – not that it was much of a chore to do so because I always enjoy these occasions and it was a lovely morning anyway.

It’s not quite over, though, because tonight is the Annual Physics & Astronomy Ball. It is quite disconcerting to have two Balls squeezed together in such close proximity, but when I took over as Head of School last year I decided that I should either go to both Balls, or neither. Naturally I chose the first option. It’s a tough job but somebody has to do it. I think I’ll need to give my liver a rest for a few days afterwards, though.

Now the plan is to have an afternoon nap before tonight’s event. There’s a football match kicking off at the Amex stadium at 3pm, though, so traffic is likely to be heavy until then so I’m killing time writing this meandering blog post until getting the bus back to my flat.

I’ve just got a few more days at work until I take a break for ~10 days. I haven’t decided yet, but I think I might take a break from blogging then too. But I’ll be back tomorrow on campus to try to make sure I finish all the things I’m supposed to do before I take my holiday.



Cornet Chop Suey

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2014 by telescoper

Just time for a short lunchtime post in between loads of end-of-term business and travelling up to London for this afternoon’s meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society. I’m a bit tired, to be honest, largely owing to a late night last night at the Sussex University Mathematics Society Ball, but this is an excellent pick-me-up. You can dip into the classic “Hot Five” recordings at any point and come up with something wonderful, but I think this is one of the very best. Recorded in Chicago on February 26, 1926, Cornet Chop Suey was written by Louis Armstrong and features him on trumpet, at the centre of the amazing front line that also included Kid Ory on trombone and Johnny Dodds on clarinet. Johnny St. Cyr plays banjo and on piano is the superb Lil Armstrong (née Hardin), Louis’ first wife, who plays a very fine solo on this track.  Above all, though, it’s a vehicle for Louis Armstrong himself who is on absolutely superlative form, especially in the stop-time choruses from about 1:47 onwards. The ending’s pretty good too…



Equations in Physics

Posted in Education with tags , , on April 10, 2014 by telescoper

Just so you know that our education system is safe in the hands of Michael Gove I thought I would pass on a couple of examples from the latest official guidance on subject content for GCSE Combined Science. These are both from Appendix 1, entitled Equations in Physics.

Example one:

kinetic energy = 0.5 x mass x (acceleration)2

Example two:

(final velocity)- (initial velocity)= 2 x acceleration x time

Neither of these is even dimensionally correct!

Such sloppiness from the Department of Education is really unforgivable. Has anyone else spotted any similar howlers elsewhere in the document?  If so please let me know via the comments box…

UPDATE: Monday 14th April. Apparently these errors in the document have now been corrected, but still…



Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on April 9, 2014 by telescoper

Frederick Delius is by no means my favourite composer, but when I heard yesterday of the death of the fine English baritone John Shirley-Quirk, I immediately decided to post this piece as a tribute. It’s a sumptuous setting, by Delius, of Ernest Dowson‘s sensual and languid poem Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae which is named after a phrase from Horace but is actually, obviously, about the poet’s obsession with a lost love. I probably shouldn’t mention that the lost love in question was an eleven year old girl and he was 24.  Dowson pursued her unsuccessfully for eight years. When eventually, at the age of 19, she married someone else he drank himself to death at the age of 32. Oscar Wilde said of Dowson:

Poor wounded wonderful fellow that he was, a tragic reproduction of all tragic poetry, like a symbol, or a scene. I hope bay leaves will be laid on his tomb and rue and myrtle too for he knew what love was.

Anyway, the music and words are beautifully woven together and also beautifully sung.  RIP John Shirley-Quirk.

Here’s the text of the poem

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was grey:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind,
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Galactic Loops as Sources of Polarized Emission

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by telescoper

Since I seem to have established myself as an arch-sceptic concerning the cosmological interpretation of the the BICEP2 measurement of the polarization of the cosmic microwave background (CMB), I couldn’t resist posting a link to an interesting paper by Liu et al. that has just appeared on the arXiv.

The abstract is:

We investigate possible imprints of galactic foreground structures such as the `radio loops’ in the derived maps of the cosmic microwave background. Surprisingly there is evidence for these not only at radio frequencies through their synchrotron radiation, but also at microwave frequencies where emission by dust dominates. This suggests the mechanism is magnetic dipole radiation from dust grains enriched by metallic iron, or ferrimagnetic molecules. This new foreground we have identified is present at high galactic latitudes, and potentially dominates over the expected B-mode polarisation signal due to primordial gravitational waves from inflation.

The authors argue that foreground emission from our own Galaxy has not been fully subtracted from maps of the cosmic microwave background. This emission could result in significant contamination of the CMB polarization if it is associated with dust grains aligned with the Galaxy’s magnetic field.

I’m grateful to one of the authors of the paper, Philip Mertsch, for sending me this map of the Galactic Loops with the BICEP2 region superimposed on it, demonstrating that there is potential for a contribution…




This paper is likely to provoke quite a discussion, so I thought I’d suggest one possible way of testing it, namely by updating the analysis presented by myself and Patrick Dineen in 2003 with new data. Here’s the abstract of our old paper:

We present a diagnostic test of possible Galactic contamination of cosmic microwave background sky maps designed to provide an independent check on the methods used to compile these maps. The method involves a non-parametric measurement of cross-correlation between the Faraday rotation measure (RM) of extragalactic sources and the measured microwave signal at the same angular position. We argue that statistical properties of the observed distribution of rotation measures are consistent with a Galactic origin, an argument reinforced by a direct measurement of cross-correlation between dust, free-free and synchrotron foreground maps and RM values with the strongest correlation being for dust and free-free. We do not find any statistically compelling evidence for correlations between the RM values and the COBE DMR maps at any frequency, so there is no evidence of residual contamination in these CMB maps. On the other hand, there is a statistically significant correlation of RM with the preliminary WMAP individual frequency maps which remains significant in the Tegmark et al. Wiener-filtered map but not in the Internal Linear Combination map produced by the WMAP team.

The idea is that cross-correlating the CMB pattern with Faraday rotation measures should provide an independent diagnostic of the effect of magnetic fields. Our analysis was based on old CMB data, so there’s an interesting project to be done updating it with, e.g., Planck CMB data and a larger set of rotation measures. See the comment below for a reference to more recent work along these lines, but still not including Planck.

Anyway, this all goes to show that there’s one question you can always ask about an astrophysics result: have you considered the possible role of magnetic fields?

Death and Other Inconveniences

Posted in Biographical, Brighton with tags , , , on April 7, 2014 by telescoper

It would be an exaggeration to say that this has been a good day. It started in Cardiff when I got to the Central Station and discovered that my train was late. It was only 12 minutes late, in fact, which isn’t at all unsurprising for Late Western. Nevertheless I was a bit annoyed that the 12 minutes turned into 20 minutes and that the Train Manager never once offered an explanation or apology on the entire journey into Paddington.

I did eventually find out the reason for the initial delay via Twitter. Earlier there had been a “person hit by a train”. My irritation turned to deep sadness, at hearing yet again that coded message indicating a death by suicide.

Sitting on the train I remembered seeing fallen cherry blossom in Bute Park. The morning rain had brought it down. That would provide a much more poetic excuse for late running than the usual “leaves on the line”, a poignant reminder of our mortality and all that. I didn’t realize how apt that would turn out to be.

After arriving into Paddington I took the tube to Victoria and had only a short wait for a train to Brighton. All went well until we reached Gatwick Airport at which point we were held at a signal for some time. The train manager then announced that the train would be diverted via Lewes and would therefore be late. The reason? Unbelievably, another “person hit by a train”, this time near Hassocks. Two in one day. Grim.

The train reached Lewes but didn’t stop at a platform but up a branch line some distance from the station. The driver changed ends and we went through Lewes station again without stopping, this time on the branch line to Brighton. We then passed Falmer (my intended destination) without stopping too.

Soon we arrived in Brighton, and I had to get another, stopping, train back to Falmer. I got on the next one, which sat for 20 minutes without moving. Diversion of all the mainline trains onto the Lewes line was causing congestion. As time ticked away I was starting to worry I would miss my 5pm lecture. I decided to give up on the train, left the station and proceeded to take the Number 25 bus to Falmer from the nearest stop.

That turned out not to be a wise move. The bus managed to travel a few hundred yards only before the driver announced that the Lewes Road had been closed by the Police owing to an “incident” at the gyratory system beside Sainsbury’s. We sat on the bus for a while just south of the area that had been cordoned off and then the driver told us the inevitable news that the bus was terminating and we all had to get off.

The main bus garage lies on the Lewes Road just north of the gyratory system, so I thought there was a chance some buses might be operating the other side of the blockage. I went to investigate.

As I skirted round the police cordon I counted at least ten police cars scattered about, along with two large vans. Armed officers were swarming around, and some were on the top of the Sainsbury’s building. There was also a uniformed officer with a loud hailer. Apparently someone, apparently armed, was inside one of the nearby flats. I didn’t hang about to find out more.

There were no buses northbound that I could see, and by now it was pouring with rain. I couldn’t see any possibility of getting to campus with my luggage, so decided to give up and go to my flat. By now my phone battery was nearly flat so all I could so was leave quick messages on Twitter and Facebook, before it croaked, to say
I was cancelling my lecture.

As I write the incident at Lewes road appears to be continuing, but at least nobody seems to have been seriously hurt.

I’m of course very disappointed at having had to miss a lecture, and some other things I wanted to do this afternoon but the three events that impinged on my journey are of far greater consequence for the people affected than my own inconvenience. It’s no doubt been a rougher day than I can possibly imagine for a great many people today.

Stanzas – April 1814

Posted in Poetry with tags , on April 7, 2014 by telescoper

Away! the moor is dark beneath the moon,
Rapid clouds have drank the last pale beam of even:
Away! the gathering winds will call the darkness soon,
And profoundest midnight shroud the serene lights of heaven.

Pause not! The time is past! Every voice cries, Away!
Tempt not with one last tear thy friend’s ungentle mood:
Thy lover’s eye, so glazed and cold, dares not entreat thy stay:
Duty and dereliction guide thee back to solitude.

Away, away! to thy sad and silent home;
Pour bitter tears on its desolated hearth;
Watch the dim shades as like ghosts they go and come,
And complicate strange webs of melancholy mirth.

The leaves of wasted autumn woods shall float around thine head:
The blooms of dewy spring shall gleam beneath thy feet:
But thy soul or this world must fade in the frost that binds the dead,
Ere midnight’s frown and morning’s smile, ere thou and peace may meet.

The cloud shadows of midnight possess their own repose,
For the weary winds are silent, or the moon is in the deep:
Some respite to its turbulence unresting ocean knows;
Whatever moves, or toils, or grieves, hath its appointed sleep.

Thou in the grave shalt rest—yet till the phantoms flee
Which that house and heath and garden made dear to thee erewhile,
Thy remembrance, and repentance, and deep musings are not free
From the music of two voices and the light of one sweet smile.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822); posted to mark the 200th anniversary of the poem’s composition.



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