Archive for January, 2011

The Day of the Rat

Posted in Biographical, Columbo with tags , , on January 22, 2011 by telescoper

The last two days have been a bit different from usual, owing to the arrival of an unexpected visitor in the Coles residence.

About 5am yesterday (Friday) I woke up suddenly to the sound of something moving downstairs. I thought it might be a burglar, so I switched all the lights on and rushed to the landing just in time to see a large rodent running along the hall on the ground floor. I followed it into the sitting room, but it had vanished somehow. Looking around I found a number of tell-tale holes in the skirting boards and floorboards through which the rat might gone to earth, including one hole which has been there since I moved in but which looked suddenly larger. I blocked them all up as best I could and, there being no further sign of my house guest, went back to bad.

Columbo didn’t seem to be in the slightest bit bothered by the intruder and, although I put him in the sitting room to act as sentry in case the critter appeared again, within a few minutes he was upstairs sleeping on my bed.

I couldn’t get back to sleep, as every little sound I heard made me think of the rat so in the end I got up, had breakfast and got ready to go to work. Thus it was that went into the department bright and early, put a full shift in, and then went along to the Poet’s Corner for a few drinks with the astronomy folks afterwards. This was even more pleasurable than usual because it was an opportunity to celebrate another succesful completion of a PhD; Well done Vanessa!

Anyway, I got home quite late and was pretty tired so went to bed hoping that I wouldn’t woken up in the early hours again by the rat. Unfortunately, about 6.30 I was disturbed by the sound of frantic scuttling and gnawing downstairs. This time the rat wasn’t on the surface, but moving about under the floorboards, trying to find an alternative way up. Clearly I’d managed to block the normal route. I made sure everything was secure and tried to get some more sleep, which didn’t work, and eventually when it seemed a decent hour I called a pest control operative who promised to come about mid-day.

I busied myself with some domestic chores until he arrived, while periodically checking on the sitting room and whether the rat could still be heard. It could. However, about 11.30, the noise grew louder and finally the creature surfaced again. It had made a completely new hole in only a few hours. Rats must have some gnashers on them. I chased it with a sweeping brush and it holed up under the television. There then followed a standoff, only interrupted by the arrival of the rat catcher about ten minutes later.

The guy went for a net – although there isn’t much room to wield such a thing in my house – and we devised a cunning plan to trap it. The plan failed as the rat was much quicker than either of us and its daring escape bid made full use of the element of surprise as it charged straight at us.

The rat vanished again under the floorboards, so we had to settle for plan B which was to lay traps and poison anywhere it might get to. Various forms of rodenticide were deployed, including difenacoum and brodificoum. The traps are baited with a mixture of peanut butter and chocolate, both of which I hate, but which apparently rats adore. With that he gave me the bill and left.

Columbo slept through the whole adventure, but came downstairs to say goodbye to the rat man.

There’s been no more noise from under the floor, but I’m pretty sure the rat is trapped. If it eats any of the poison then it will die there, slowly, and the only way I’ll know about it is when its rotting corpse starts to reek. So I have that to look forward to, unless it hurls itself onto a trap and dies an instant death.

The remaining mystery is how the critter got into the house. It clearly wasn’t through a direct route into the front room, otherwise he could have got out the same way and wouldn’t be trapped. Columbo once caught a rat in the garden, but it wasn’t dead when he brought it into the house. The rat catcher suggested he might have done the same thing with this one, and it managed to escape and roam free. Perhaps guilt is the reason Columbo kept such a low profile through all this?

I’m still kicking myself for not acting quicker when it broke cover. If only I’d had a shovel like when I was little…

That’s enough about the rat. Time to get cracking with my dinner. Followed perhaps by a biscuit.


The Pilgrims’ Chorus

Posted in Jazz, Opera with tags , , , on January 21, 2011 by telescoper

So a long and difficult week ends, with quite a few beers in the Poet’s Corner and me about to collapse into bed. I think this is a good time to wheel out something you hopefully find quite amusing, i.e. a Harlem Stride piano version, by Don Lambert, of the Pilgrims’ Chorus from the Opera Tannhauser by Richard Wagner. I think I can safely say that if Wagner was alive today he’d be turning in his grave to hear such a frontal assault on his music, but I think it’s a blast…

The Galaxy

Posted in Poetry with tags , on January 20, 2011 by telescoper

How’s this for a definition of galaxy?

Torrent of light and river of the air,
Along whose bed the glimmering stars are seen
Like gold and silver sands in some ravine
Where mountain streams have left their channels bare!
The Spaniard sees in thee the pathway, where
His patron saint descended in the sheen
Of his celestial armor, on serene
And quiet nights, when all the heavens were fair.
Not this I see, nor yet the ancient fable
Of Phaeton’s wild course, that scorched the skies
Where’er the hoofs of his hot coursers trod;
But the white drift of worlds o’er chasms of sable,
The star-dust that is whirled aloft and flies
From the invisible chariot-wheels of God

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)


NAM 2011

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 20, 2011 by telescoper

Just a quick post to plug this year’s forthcoming Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting, incorporating the MIST and UKSP meetings, which will be taking place at the splendid Venue Cymru conference centre, Llandudno, North Wales, from Sunday 17 April to Thursday 21 April.

Registration is now open, and you can now also submit abstracts of either oral or poster presentations to be considered for inclusion in the various sessions described in the science programme.

I’ve been asked to organise a small part of this meeting, namely a session on Recent Developments in Astro-statistics, so if you’d like to give a talk in that session please register and upload an abstract to the website. You can’t do the latter until you have done the former. Astro-statistics will be interpreted widely, so I hope to have a varied programme including as many applications of statistics to astronomy and astrophysics as I can get!

NAM is a particularly good opportunity for younger researchers – PhD students and postdocs – to present their work to a big audience so I particularly encourage such persons to submit abstracts. Would more senior readers please pass this message on to anyone they think might want to give a talk?

If you have any questions please feel free to use the comments box (or contact me privately).


What is a Galaxy?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 19, 2011 by telescoper

An interesting little paper by Duncan Forbes and  Pavel Kroupa appeared today on the arXiv today. It asks what you would have thought was the rather basic question “What is a Galaxy?”. Like many basic questions, however, it turns out to be much  more complicated than you imagined.

Ask most people what they think a galaxy is and they’ll think of something like Andromeda (or M31), shown on the left, with its lovely spiral arms. But galaxies exist in many different types, which have quite different morphologies, dynamical properties and stellar populations.

The paper by Forbes and Kroupa lists examples of definitions from technical articles and elsewhere. The Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, gives

Any of the numerous large groups of stars and other
matter that exist in space as independent systems.

I suppose that is OK, but isn’t very  precise. How do you define “independent”, for example? Two galaxies orbiting in a binary system aren’t independent, but you would still want to count them as two galaxies rather than one. A group or cluster of galaxies is likewise not a single large galaxy, at least not by any useful definition. At the other extreme, what about a cluster of stars or even a binary star system? Why aren’t they regarded as gaaxies too? They are (or can be) gravitationally bound..

Clearly we have a particular size in mind, but even if we restrict ourselves to “galaxy-sized” objects we still have problems. Why is a globular cluster not a small galaxy while a dwarf galaxy is?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t really care very much about nomenclature. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and a galaxy by any other name would be just as luminous. What really counts are the physical properties of the various astronomical systems we find because these are what have to be explained by astrophysicists.

Perhaps it would be better to adopt Judge Potter Stewart‘s approach. Asked to rule on an obscenity case, he wrote that hard-core pornography was difficult to define, but ” I know it when I see it”….

As a cosmologist I tend to think that there’s only one system that really counts – the Universe, and galaxies are just bits of the Universe where stars seemed to have formed and organised themselves into interesting shapes. Galaxies may be photogenic, nice showy things for impressing people, but they aren’t really in themselves all that important in the cosmic scheme of things. They’re just the Big Bang’s bits of bling.

I’m not saying that galaxies aren’t extremely useful for telling us about the Universe; they clearly are. They shed light (literally) on a great many things that we wouldn’t otherwise have any clue about. Without them we couldn’t even have begun to do cosmology, and they still provide some of the most important evidence in the ongoing investigation of the the nature of the Universe. However, I think what goes on in between the shiny bits is actually much more interesting from the point of view of fundamental physics than the shiny things themselves.

Anyway, I’m rambling again and I can hear the observational astronomers swearing at me through their screens, so let me move on to the fun bit of the paper I was discussing, which is that the authors list a number of possible definitions of a galaxy and invite readers to vote.

For your information, the options (discussed in more detail in the paper) for the minimum criteria to define a galaxy are:

  • The relaxation time is greater than the age of the Universe
  • The half-light radius is greater than 10 parsecs
  • The presence of complex stellar systems
  • The presence of dark matter
  • Hosts a satellite stellar system

I won’t comment on the grammatical inconsistency of these statements. Or perhaps I just did. I’m not sure these would have been my choices either, but there you are. There’s an option to add your own criteria anyway.

The poll can be found here.

Get voting!

UPDATE: In view of the reaction some of my comments have generated from galactic astronomers I’ve decided to add a poll of my own, so that readers of this blog can express their opinions in a completely fair and unbiased way:


Disturbing Admissions

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , on January 18, 2011 by telescoper

In a rare moment of wakefulness during yesterday’s Board of Studies, I listened to a report from our departmental admissions tutor about the state of play with applications for entry onto our physics courses next year. It was good news – applications are up more than 50% on last year – but this was tempered by the fact that our quota has gone down slightly, owing to the presence of a cap on student numbers. I’m not sure whether the increase, perhaps caused by students trying to get into university before the fee  goes up to £9K, is echoed around the country, but it seems likely that competition for places will be intense this year, with the almost certain result that many students  will be disappointed at being unable to get into their first choice university.

Coincidentally, I noticed a story on the BBC at the weekend suggesting that the whole timetable of university admissions might change. What the government is planning remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting the system is far from perfect and if we had the opportunity to design a process for university admissions from scratch, there is no way on Earth we would end up with a system like the current one.

As things stand, students apply for university places through UCAS before they have their final A-level results (which don’t come out until July). Most applications are in by January of the year of intended admission, in fact. The business of selecting candidates and making offers therefore makes use of “predicted grades” as supplied by teachers of the applicant.

According to the BBC news

..under the current system those from poorer backgrounds typically have their grades under-predicted.

I simply don’t know whether there is any information to back this up – in my (limited) experience most teachers systematically overestimate the grades of their pupils – but if it is the case then it would be a good reason for changing the timetable so that potential students could apply once they have their results in the bag. They can do that now, of course, but only if they take a gap-year, applying for admission the year after they have their A-levels.

But the inaccuracy of predicted A-level grades is not the only absurdity in the current system. Universities such as Cardiff, where I work, have to engage in enormous amounts of guesswork during the admissions process. Suppose a department has a quota of 100, defining the target number students to take in. They might reasonably get a minimum of 500 applications for these 100 places, depending on the popularity of university and course.

Each student is allowed to apply to 5 different institutions. If a decision is made to make an offer of a place, it would normally be conditional on particular A-level grades (e.g. AAB). At the end of the process the student is expected to pick a first choice (CF) and an insurance choice (CI) out of the offers they receive. They will be expected to go to their first choice if they get the required grades, to the insurance choice if they don’t make it into the first choice but get grades sufficient for the reserve. If they don’t make either grade they have to go into the clearing system and take pot luck among those universities that have places free after all the CFs and CIs have been settled.

Each university department has to decide how many offers to make. This will always be larger than the number of places, because not all applicants will make an offer their CF. We have to honour all offers made, but there are severe penalties if we under or over recruit. How many offers to make then? What fraction of students with an offer will put us first? What fraction of them will actually get the required grade?

The answers to these questions are not at all obvious, so the whole system runs on huge levels of uncertainty. I’m amazed that each year we manage to get anywhere close to the correct number, and we usually get very close indeed by the end.

It’s a very skilled job, being an admissions tutor, but there’s no question it would all be fairer on both applicants and departments to remove most of the guesswork.

But there is the rub. There are only two ways I can see of changing the timetable to allow what the government seems to want to do:

  1. Have the final A-level examinations earlier
  2. Start the university academic year later

The unavoidable consequence of the first option would be the removal of large quantities of material from the A-level syllabus so the exams could be held several months earlier, which would be a disaster in terms of preparing students for university.

The second option would mean starting the academic year in, say, January instead of October. This would in my opinion be preferable to 1, but would still be difficult because it would interfere with all the other things a university does as well as teaching, especially research.  The summer recess (July-September), wherein  much research is currently done, could be changed to an autumn one (October-December) but there would be a great deal of resistance, especially from the older establishments; I can’t see Oxbridge being willing to abandon its definitions of teaching term! And what would the students do between July and January?

The apply-after-A-level idea has been floated before, about a decade ago, but it sank without trace. I wonder if it will do any better this time around?


Bristol and Back

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on January 17, 2011 by telescoper

I almost did the unthinkable today by not posting anything on my blog. It’s been such a busy day that I wasn’t able to post at lunchtime, chiefly because I didn’t have a lunch break.  I don’t want to let the side down, so I decided to put something up, but the following “quick” post will have to do for today.

After an interminable meeting (zzzz...) of the Board of Studies this morning in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff, where I work, I had to rush back to the office, grab my things and dash off to the station to catch a train to the fine city of Bristol, where I was giving a colloquium in the School of Physics at the University of Bristol. I got there just in time for a quick slurp of tea before heading off to do my bit. I hope the talk was OK, but that’s not really for me to judge.

After the colloquium I got the chance to relax over a pint of beer, chat to staff and students and was then whisked off for a splendid curry. One of the folks that looked after me was Professor Mark Birkinshaw, who taught a course I took when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge; he seemed quite chuffed when I told him I still had the notes! And if Anton is reading this, he asked me to pass on his good wishes to you too! Thence it was back by train in the rain to Cardiff.

I think that’s all I have the energy to write. In fact, this is the first time ever I’ve used the “Quick Post” feature on WordPress, a streamlined interface limited to shorter items without graphics and other complicated extras which I don’t usually use because my typical posts don’t count as “quick” on account of the fact that I usually keep on writing long after I’ve made the points I was going to make and have run out of useful things to say, the excessive verbosity of the resulting articles giving me a bad name in the blogosphere, which, notwithstanding its more problematic aspects, does seem to me at least to have the virtue of encouraging a more concise form of communication than is to be found in other contexts while at the same time … [continued, page 94]


Dress Rehearsal Rag

Posted in Music with tags , on January 16, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I posted anything by Leonard Cohen, so how about this live performance of his own cheerful little ditty Dress Rehearsal Rag? The Maestro himself delivers a health warning at the start of the recording, so please don’t listen to this if you’re of a depressive disposition…

Here are the lyrics

Four o’clock in the afternoon
and I didn’t feel like very much.
I said to myself, “Where are you golden boy,
where is your famous golden touch?”
I thought you knew where
all of the elephants lie down,
I thought you were the crown prince
of all the wheels in Ivory Town.
Just take a look at your body now,
there’s nothing much to save
and a bitter voice in the mirror cries,
“Hey, Prince, you need a shave.”
Now if you can manage to get
your trembling fingers to behave,
why don’t you try unwrapping
a stainless steel razor blade?
That’s right, it’s come to this,
yes it’s come to this,
and wasn’t it a long way down,
wasn’t it a strange way down?

There’s no hot water
and the cold is running thin.
Well, what do you expect from
the kind of places you’ve been living in?
Don’t drink from that cup,
it’s all caked and cracked along the rim.
That’s not the electric light, my friend,
that is your vision growing dim.
Cover up your face with soap, there,
now you’re Santa Claus.
And you’ve got a gift for anyone
who will give you his applause.
I thought you were a racing man,
ah, but you couldn’t take the pace.
That’s a funeral in the mirror
and it’s stopping at your face.
That’s right, it’s come to this,
yes it’s come to this,
and wasn’t it a long way down,
ah wasn’t it a strange way down?

Once there was a path
and a girl with chestnut hair,
and you passed the summers
picking all of the berries that grew there;
there were times she was a woman,
oh, there were times she was just a child,
and you held her in the shadows
where the raspberries grow wild.
And you climbed the twilight mountains
and you sang about the view,
and everywhere that you wandered
love seemed to go along with you.
That’s a hard one to remember,
yes it makes you clench your fist.
And then the veins stand out like highways,
all along your wrist.
And yes it’s come to this,
it’s come to this,
and wasn’t it a long way down,
wasn’t it a strange way down?

You can still find a job,
go out and talk to a friend.
On the back of every magazine
there are those coupons you can send.
Why don’t you join the Rosicrucians,
they can give you back your hope,
you can find your love with diagrams
on a plain brown envelope.
But you’ve used up all your coupons
except the one that seems
to be written on your wrist
along with several thousand dreams.
Now Santa Claus comes forward,
that’s a razor in his mit;
and he puts on his dark glasses
and he shows you where to hit;
and then the cameras pan,
the stand in stunt man,
dress rehearsal rag,
it’s just the dress rehearsal rag,
you know this dress rehearsal rag,
it’s just a dress rehearsal rag.

Incidentally, the song he refers to in the preamble,  Gloomy Sunday, in fact originated in Hungary, not Czechoslovakia; check out the classic version by Billie Holliday, but only if you’re feeling brave…


Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind

Posted in Literature, Poetry with tags , on January 16, 2011 by telescoper

Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remember’d not.

Heigh-ho! sing, etc.

From Act II, Scene 7, As You Like It by William Shakespeare.


Take the A Train

Posted in Jazz with tags , on January 15, 2011 by telescoper

No particular reason for posting this unusual trio version of the Duke Ellington standard Take the A Train, except that I think it’s wonderful to see the great man playing the kind of extended solo that his big band rarely allowed him space to do.