Archive for March 28, 2009

The Art of Sheep

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on March 28, 2009 by telescoper

In case you’re wondering how people pass the time at the weekend here in Wales, get a load of this. It may be the strangest thing you’ve ever seen men do with sheep, but I think it’s wonderful. ..

Only in Wales!

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Dublin Back

Posted in Art, Books, Talks and Reviews, Crosswords, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on March 28, 2009 by telescoper

I’m just back from a flying visit to Dublin, where I gave a talk yesterday at a meeting of the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland (ASGI), an organization which promotes scientific collaborations between individuals and institutions on both sides of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Eire. The venue for the twice-yearly meetings moves around both countries, but this time it was held in the splendid environment of Trinity College, Dublin.

It turned out to be an easy trip from Cardiff to Dublin and my first opportunity to try out Cardiff’s fine little airport. A small airline called Air Arann operates the route to Dublin from there, and it all went to schedule despite the plane having to struggle against a 70 mph head wind across the Irish sea. For our small propeller-driven plane, that made a signficant difference to the flying time.

Arriving in Dublin on Thursday I had time to have a nice dinner before settling in to my hotel in the Temple Bar region of the city. There’s a huge concentration of bars and nightclubs there and it’s a traditional area for Stag and Hen Parties. There was plenty of evidence of drunken debauchery going on into the early hours of the morning, which remind me of the way the Irish rugby fans carried on last weekend in Cardiff.

Anyway, the meeting itself was interesting with a wide range of talks most of which were given by PhD students. I enjoy meetings where the younger scientists are encouraged to speak; too many conferences involve the same people giving the same talk time after time. Solar Physics was particularly  well represented, and I learned quite a bit about about things that are far from my own province. 

There isn’t much actual cosmology done in Ireland (North or South) so my brief as invited speaker was to give an overview of the current state of the field for astronomers who are not  experts in cosmological matters. I therefore gave a summary of the concordance model which I’ve blogged about before and then made some comments about things that might point to a more complete theory of the Universe. I also mentioned some of the anomalies in the cosmic microwave background that I’ve also blogged about on here.

I usually use this piece of Hieronymus Bosch The Last Judgement to illustrate my feelings about the concordance model:

das_letzte_gericht

 

 
The top part represents the concordance cosmology. It clearly features an eminent cosmologist surrounded by postdoctoral researchers. Everything appears to be in heavenly harmony, surrounded by a radiant glow of self-satisfaction. The trumpets represent various forms of exaggerated press coverage.

But if you step back from it, and get the whole thing in a proper perspective, you realise that there’s an awful lot going on underneath that’s not so pleasant or easy to interptet. I don’t know what’s going down below there although the unfortunate figures slaving away in miserable conditions and suffering unimaginable torments are obviously supposed to represent graduate students.

The main point is that the concordance model is based on rather strange foundations: nobody understands what the dark matter and dark energy are, for example. Even more fundamentally, the whole thing is based on a shotgun marriage between general relativity and quantum field theory which is doomed to fail somewhere along the line.

Far from being a final theory of the Universe I think we should treat our standard model as a working hypothesis and actively look for departures from it. I’m not at all against the model. As models go, it’s very successful. It’s a good one, but it’s still just a model.

That reminds me of the school report I got after my first year at the Royal Grammar School. The summary at the bottom described me as a “model student”. I was so thrilled I went and looked up the word model in a dictionary and found it said “a small imitation of the real thing.”

Anyway, the talk went down pretty well (I think) and after a quick glass of Guinness (which definitely went down well) I was back to Dublin airport and home to Cardiff soon after that: Cardiff airport to my house was less than twenty minutes. I greatly enjoyed my short visit and was delighted to be asked to do a couple of seminars back there in the near future.

I was in a  good mood when I got home, which got even better when I found out that I won the latest Crossword competition in the Times Literary Supplement. And the prize isn’t even a dictionary. It’s cash!