## In Memoriam: Peter Falk (1927-2011)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on June 25, 2011 by telescoper

I came home last night to the sad news of the death, at the age of 83, of the actor Peter Falk, most famous for his role as the eponymous Lieutenant in the TV detective series Columbo. The newspapers are rightly filled with tributes today, but it can’t do any harm to add one more of my own. Falk was a fine actor, and I think the character of Lieutenant Columbo was a truly brilliant creation. I’m going to spend this evening watching a few old episodes on DVD.

Columbo was remarkable in many ways. For a start it eschewed the conventions of the usual detective story because the audience knows exactly what’s going to happen before it’s even started. Its lack of reliance on the traditional elements of a murder mystery means that you don’t watch Columbo to find out who did it, or whether or not the Lieutenant will ensnare them. We know who did it and that Columbo will catch them out. But how will he do it?

Every episode begins with the murderer – nearly always a highly intelligent, highly successful and extremely confident individual, often from the upper echelons of society – carefully planning and executing what looks like the perfect crime – establishing an alibi, removing forensic evidence, and so on. It always seems to work, at least until the shabby character of Columbo shuffles in to inspect the scene. The criminal always underestimates Columbo, at least at first, but in that grubby raincoat hides his nemesis. The lieutenant is a lot smarter than he looks. Sub pallio sordido sapientia.

The show’s creators, Richard Levinson and William Link, in fact based the character of Columbo on Petrovitch, the detective in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Both men have keen intellects masked by shambolic exteriors, and way the detective drives to distraction, and inevitable capture, a criminal who makes no attempt to run also echoes the great Russian novel.  It was an ingenious idea, but it needed a great TV actor to make it work. In Falk’s hands what might have been a clumsy stereotype became a marvellously believable character, sometimes infuriating, sometimes comical, in his own way lovable, and always fascinating.

There’s also Columbo’s wrong-footing “false exit”, accompanied by the catchprase “There’s just one more thing…”.  Just when the perpetrator has begun to relax, the bloodhound returns. The more trivial the “thing” is, the more damning it proves. As an application of psychology, it’s a superb tactic and it slowly but surely grinds down the criminal’s resistance. Often the murderer’s exasperation at Columbo’s relentless badgering  leads to rash actions and errors; the second murder, if there is one, is never as carefully planned as the first. .

It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why this plot format works so well, but it certainly does. Episodes of Columbo are still shown on TV all around the world. As a matter of fact, I watched one on TV in my hotel room in Copenhagen on Thursday night (with Danish subtitles). Part of it is the delight in seeing the humble but decent detective bring down the rich yet evil murderer. But most, I think, is just the excellence of the central performance by Peter Falk. He didn’t do much else of any consequence – an exception is a very amusing self-parody in the spoof detective film Murder by Death – but who cares? As Columbo he was quite superb, and he’s left a woderful legacy.

Rest in peace, Peter Falk.

P.S. It’s no secret that I named my cat Columbo in honour of the detective, largely because of his habit of leaving through the catflap only to return suddenly a moment later. He doesn’t say “just one more thing…” but I’m sure he would if he could. I do hope the passing of Peter Falk isn’t an omen for my Columbo…

## Flying Home

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on June 24, 2011 by telescoper

Not much time to post today: I’ve got a full morning’s work finishing the drafts of two papers before flying home this afternoon….so here’s an appropriate piece of music from the late great Lionel Hampton.

## Ex Officio

Posted in Education, Finance on June 23, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been remarkably subdued and rant-free these days – partly because I’ve been too engaged with other things. However, I just came across a story in the Times Higher which put me in the mood for a short diatribe.

It seems that the Higher Education Council for England (HEFCE) has published a report entitled “Performance in Higher Education” which looks into university estates management. Among other things, this report states that in English universities academics are assigned an average of 13.2 sq m of office space per person, Scottish institutions offer 14.5 sq m, and Welsh universities a “whopping” 15.7 sq m. By contrast the average office space per person across all sectors in the UK 10-12 sq m.

The conclusion is that

The enduring perception of an office as a status symbol has contributed to the higher education sector lagging behind nearly all others in the efficient use of space.

An interesting inference, this, especially as it gives no definition of what is meant by “efficient”. Note also that it resorts to the pure cliché of the office as status symbol without a shred of evidence to support this as an explanation of alleged inefficiency. I have quite a large office – it seems Welsh universities are generous in this regard – but I don’t see it as a status symbol at all. It just means I use it for more things.

For one thing, I use my office for research. I can’t speak for anyone else but for me that means having a space to myself, free from distractions, for thinking. My room also contains many books and research papers that I use for both teaching and research. I also hold tutorials and discussion group meetings for which the large whiteboard is essential (although I would have preferred an old-fashioned blackboard). On occasion I also have private meetings with students and other staff at which confidential matters can be discussed in private.

Given the variety of activities carried out in a space which is only fractionally larger than the national norm, I would be quite confident of making a case that universities -or at least those that do both research and teaching –  already use their space more efficiently than other sectors.

And another thing. Many of us work in old buildings. Mine is a hundred years old. Converting it to an open plan environment would cost a fortune. Perhaps in order to effect the “cultural change” HEFCE desires universities should knock down the old buildings and put up brand new, smaller ones, with open plan offices? Pity in that case that capital funding has been slashed.

The HEFCE report states that “other sectors have … embraced a more open-plan scenario”. That may be the case, but other sectors are not universities and they don’t do the range of things we do. How am I supposed to hold tutorials in an open-plan office? And how would I be expected to do research with chit-chat going on all around?

Managers will probably argue that we could have dedicated rooms that could be booked for tutorials, etc. Fine. So we would have to decamp from our (small) offices to a bare cell with a group of students. If something comes up that makes me want to refer to a book or paper, I couldn’t pop over to my bookshelf and get it, I’d have to come back to my office. Or just not bother. There’d also be no space for impromptu meetings. No room for books either, but who needs them? Most university libraries don’t bother with them any more so why should staff?

I know exactly what would happen if these measures were introduced. First, academics would have to do their research at home. Opportunities for interaction between staff members, and between staff and students, would be greatly diminished. Students would no longer feel that the staff were accessible for advice and discussions, greatly diminishing the student experience. The impact on research would be extremely negative, as would be the effect on staff morale.

But who cares about teaching or research? It would be more efficient.

## The Cloud

Posted in Poetry with tags , on June 23, 2011 by telescoper

I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers,
From the seas and the streams;
I bear light shade for the leaves when laid
In their noonday dreams.
From my wings are shaken the dews that waken
The sweet buds every one,
When rocked to rest on their mother’s breast,
As she dances about the sun.
I wield the flail of the lashing hail,
And whiten the green plains under,
And then again I dissolve it in rain,
And laugh as I pass in thunder.

I sift the snow on the mountains below,
And their great pines groan aghast;
And all the night ’tis my pillow white,
While I sleep in the arms of the blast.
Sublime on the towers of my skiey bowers,
Lightning, my pilot, sits;
In a cavern under is fettered the thunder,
It struggles and howls at fits;

Over earth and ocean, with gentle motion,
This pilot is guiding me,
Lured by the love of the genii that move
In the depths of the purple sea;
Over the rills, and the crags, and the hills,
Over the lakes and the plains,
Wherever he dream, under mountain or stream,
The Spirit he loves remains;
And I all the while bask in Heaven’s blue smile,
Whilst he is dissolving in rains.

The sanguine Sunrise, with his meteor eyes,
Leaps on the back of my sailing rack,
When the morning star shines dead;
As on the jag of a mountain crag,
Which an earthquake rocks and swings,
An eagle alit one moment may sit
In the light of its golden wings.
And when Sunset may breathe, from the lit sea beneath,
Its ardors of rest and of love,

And the crimson pall of eve may fall
From the depth of Heaven above,
With wings folded I rest, on mine aery nest,
As still as a brooding dove.
That orbed maiden with white fire laden,
Whom mortals call the Moon,
Glides glimmering o’er my fleece-like floor,
By the midnight breezes strewn;
And wherever the beat of her unseen feet,
Which only the angels hear,
May have broken the woof of my tent’s thin roof,
The stars peep behind her and peer;
And I laugh to see them whirl and flee,
Like a swarm of golden bees,
When I widen the rent in my wind-built tent,
Till the calm rivers, lakes, and seas,
Like strips of the sky fallen through me on high,
Are each paved with the moon and these.

I bind the Sun’s throne with a burning zone,
And the Moon’s with a girdle of pearl;
The volcanoes are dim, and the stars reel and swim
When the whirlwinds my banner unfurl.
From cape to cape, with a bridge-like shape,
Over a torrent sea,
Sunbeam-proof, I hang like a roof,–
The mountains its columns be.
The triumphal arch through which I march
With hurricane, fire, and snow,
When the Powers of the air are chained to my chair,
Is the million-colored bow;
The sphere-fire above its soft colors wove,
While the moist Earth was laughing below.

I am the daughter of Earth and Water,
And the nursling of the Sky;
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain when with never a stain
The pavilion of Heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph,
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise and unbuild it again.

by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822).

## Cosmic Clumpiness Conundra

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 22, 2011 by telescoper

Well there’s a coincidence. I was just thinking of doing a post about cosmological homogeneity, spurred on by a discussion at the workshop I attended in Copenhagen a couple of weeks ago, when suddenly I’m presented with a topical hook to hang it on.

New Scientist has just carried a report about a paper by Shaun Thomas and colleagues from University College London the abstract of which reads

We observe a large excess of power in the statistical clustering of luminous red galaxies in the photometric SDSS galaxy sample called MegaZ DR7. This is seen over the lowest multipoles in the angular power spectra Cℓ in four equally spaced redshift bins between $0.4 \leq z \leq 0.65$. However, it is most prominent in the highest redshift band at $z\sim 4\sigma$ and it emerges at an effective scale $k \sim 0.01 h{\rm Mpc}^{-1}$. Given that MegaZ DR7 is the largest cosmic volume galaxy survey to date ($3.3({\rm Gpc} h^{-1})^3$) this implies an anomaly on the largest physical scales probed by galaxies. Alternatively, this signature could be a consequence of it appearing at the most systematically susceptible redshift. There are several explanations for this excess power that range from systematics to new physics. We test the survey, data, and excess power, as well as possible origins.

To paraphrase, it means that the distribution of galaxies in the survey they study is clumpier than expected on very large scales. In fact the level of fluctuation is about a factor two higher than expected on the basis of the standard cosmological model. This shows that either there’s something wrong with the standard cosmological model or there’s something wrong with the survey. Being a skeptic at heart, I’d bet on the latter if I had to put my money somewhere, because this survey involves photometric determinations of redshifts rather than the more accurate and reliable spectroscopic variety. I won’t be getting too excited about this result unless and until it is confirmed with a full spectroscopic survey. But that’s not to say it isn’t an interesting result.

For one thing it keeps alive a debate about whether, and at what scale, the Universe is homogeneous. The standard cosmological model is based on the Cosmological Principle, which asserts that the Universe is, in a broad-brush sense, homogeneous (is the same in every place) and isotropic (looks the same in all directions). But the question that has troubled cosmologists for many years is what is meant by large scales? How broad does the broad brush have to be?

At our meeting a few weeks ago, Subir Sarkar from Oxford pointed out that the evidence for cosmological homogeneity isn’t as compelling as most people assume. I blogged some time ago about an alternative idea, that the Universe might have structure on all scales, as would be the case if it were described in terms of a fractal set characterized by a fractal dimension $D$. In a fractal set, the mean number of neighbours of a given galaxy within a spherical volume of radius $R$ is proportional to $R^D$. If galaxies are distributed uniformly (homogeneously) then $D = 3$, as the number of neighbours simply depends on the volume of the sphere, i.e. as $R^3$, and the average number-density of galaxies. A value of $D < 3$ indicates that the galaxies do not fill space in a homogeneous fashion: $D = 1$, for example, would indicate that galaxies were distributed in roughly linear structures (filaments); the mass of material distributed along a filament enclosed within a sphere grows linear with the radius of the sphere, i.e. as $R^1$, not as its volume; galaxies distributed in sheets would have $D=2$, and so on.

The discussion of a fractal universe is one I’m overdue to return to. In my previous post  I left the story as it stood about 15 years ago, and there have been numerous developments since then. I will do a “Part 2” to that post before long, but I’m waiting for some results I’ve heard about informally, but which aren’t yet published, before filling in the more recent developments.

We know that $D \simeq 1.2$ on small scales (in cosmological terms, still several Megaparsecs), but the evidence for a turnover to $D=3$ is not so strong. The point is, however, at what scale would we say that homogeneity is reached. Not when $D=3$ exactly, because there will always be statistical fluctuations; see below. What scale, then?  Where $D=2.9$? $D=2.99$?

What I’m trying to say is that much of the discussion of this issue involves the phrase “scale of homogeneity” when that is a poorly defined concept. There is no such thing as “the scale of homogeneity”, just a whole host of quantities that vary with scale in a way that may or may not approach the value expected in a homogeneous universe.

It’s even more complicated than that, actually. When we cosmologists adopt the Cosmological Principle we apply it not to the distribution of galaxies in space, but to space itself. We assume that space is homogeneous so that its geometry can be described by the Friedmann-Lemaitre-Robertson-Walker metric.

According to Einstein’s  theory of general relativity, clumps in the matter distribution would cause distortions in the metric which are roughly related to fluctuations in the Newtonian gravitational potential $\delta\Phi$ by $\delta\Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right)^{2} \left(\delta \rho/\rho\right)$, give or take a factor of a few, so that a large fluctuation in the density of matter wouldn’t necessarily cause a large fluctuation of the metric unless it were on a scale $\lambda$ reasonably large relative to the cosmological horizon $\sim ct$. Galaxies correspond to a large $\delta \rho/\rho \sim 10^6$ but don’t violate the Cosmological Principle because they are too small to perturb the background metric significantly. Even the big clumps found by the UCL team only correspond to a small variation in the metric. The issue with these, therefore, is not so much that they threaten the applicability of the Cosmological Principle, but that they seem to suggest structure might have grown in a different way to that usually supposed.

The problem is that we can’t measure the gravitational potential on these scales directly so our tests are indirect. Counting galaxies is relatively crude because we don’t even know how well galaxies trace the underlying mass distribution.

An alternative way of doing this is to use not the positions of galaxies, but their velocities (usually called peculiar motions). These deviations from a pure Hubble flow are caused by lumps of matter pulling on the galaxies; the more lumpy the Universe is, the larger the velocities are and the larger the lumps are the more coherent the flow becomes. On small scales galaxies whizz around at speeds of hundreds of kilometres per second relative to each other, but averaged over larger and larger volumes the bulk flow should get smaller and smaller, eventually coming to zero in a frame in which the Universe is exactly homogeneous and isotropic.

Roughly speaking the bulk flow $v$ should relate to the metric fluctuation as approximately $\delta \Phi/c^2 \sim \left(\lambda/ct \right) \left(v/c\right)$.

It has been claimed that some observations suggest the existence of a dark flow which, if true, would challenge the reliability of the standard cosmological framework, but these results are controversial and are yet to be independently confirmed.

But suppose you could measure the net flow of matter in spheres of increasing size. At what scale would you claim homogeneity is reached? Not when the flow is exactly zero, as there will always be fluctuations, but exactly how small?

The same goes for all the other possible criteria we have for judging cosmological homogeneity. We are free to choose the point where we say the level of inhomogeneity is sufficiently small to be satisfactory.

In fact, the standard cosmology (or at least the simplest version of it) has the peculiar property that it doesn’t ever reach homogeneity anyway! If the spectrum of primordial perturbations is scale-free, as is usually supposed, then the metric fluctuations don’t vary with scale at all. In fact, they’re fixed at a level of $\delta \Phi/c^2 \sim 10^{-5}$.

The fluctuations are small, so the FLRW metric is pretty accurate, but don’t get smaller with increasing scale, so there is no point when it’s exactly true. So lets have no more of “the scale of homogeneity” as if that were a meaningful phrase. Let’s keep the discussion to the behaviour of suitably defined measurable quantities and how they vary with scale. You know, like real scientists do.

Posted in History, Literature with tags , , on June 21, 2011 by telescoper

I’ve been travelling more than usual recently and have been taking the opportunity to catch up with a stack of books I bought but haven’t had time to read. The latest is a hefty tome by Judith Flanders, entitled The Invention of Murder, a detailed, scholarly, meticulously researched but highly readable discussion of “how the Victorians revelled in death and detection”.

This isn’t just one of those “true crime” shockers – although there is plenty of shocking material in it, as will become obvious – it’s about the insight that crime gives into how society works. Murder casts a particularly garish and disturbing light on Victorian culture, as it was in that period that violent crime became a form of entertainment, which it remains today with shows like CSI.

High profile murders spawned a host of bizarre cultural phenomena in the Victorian age, including stage melodramas and puppet shows in which crimes were re-enacted for the public, cheap publications called penny-dreadfuls, and the infamous “broadsides” -cheap unregulated newspapers which were the ultimate in gutter-press, reporting the gory details in grotesquely lurid details. The detective story had its birth in this era too, fuelling public fascination with crime and detection. And then of course there were the public hangings, regularly attended by tens of thousands of people. These grisly spectacles carried on until 1868, after which time they were held inside prisons out of the public gaze. Crowds still gathered even then, to watch the black flag being hoisted to indicate the end of a life.

Rather than going through the whole book systematically, I thought I’d just pass on a few things that particularly struck me as I read it. You can read a review of the whole volume here.

One was the fact that many Victorian trials were farcical. There was little understanding of what to do with physical evidence, so more often than not the prosecution relied on allegations about the character of the defendant to get a conviction. If you were poor you had no access to legal counsel and, since you belonged to a demonized underclass, pretty much doomed if committed to trial. The same went if you were “foreign”, especially if that meant “Irish” and especially if you were also catholic. Judges routinely summed up the evidence in an outrageously biased way; the defence were allowed no summing up at all, regardless of whether the defendant could afford a lawyer. There were few restrictions on press reporting of trials, with the result that newspapers openly presented views of guilt or innocence before trial in a manner that was grossly prejudicial; among the worst offenders were the Times and the Observer, papers which we now consider to be “quality”. Juries typically took 10 minutes or less to reach a verdict and the time between sentencing to death and execution was usually 48 hours, so there was no time for an appeal.

The public executioner for much of the Victorian period was a man called William Calcraft. I don’t know if he was incompetent or just plain cruel, but he favoured the so-called “short drop” which meant death by strangulation rather than by a broken neck. Often the victim – and I use the word advisedly because for me such an execution is also murder – took several minutes to die in agony. One description in the book tells of a woman – convicted on the scantiest of evidence – so terrified by the gallows that she was unable to stand and had to be put on a chair to be hanged. The hangman miscalculated the drop and she took four minutes to die. How any human being could bear to watch such an event is beyond me, but thousands did.

Over and over again there are stark examples of the grinding poverty that reigned during the Victorian era. The underclass lived in filthy overcrowded and dangerous slums, in conditions too miserable to be imagined. Poor single women often had little choice but to turn to prostitution. Annie Chapman, for example, was murdered by Jack the Ripper in Whitechapel in September 1888. On her last night she had no money to pay for a bed in a lodging house, so had gone onto the street to earn some cash. After her death her belongings were itemized: apart from the clothes she had been wearing, her worldly goods consisted of two combs and a used envelope.

And then there were the children. Infant mortality was high and working class children in the Victorian era died so often of neglect that society had largely become hardened to the idea of killing a child. One example is the particularly appalling murder of a young girl called Fanny Adams in 1867:

Fanny’s head was perched on two hop poles, while on the ground was one of her legs, still with its stocking and boot on. Her right arm, then a hand, then her torso were found nearby. Her other foot, and left arm, were in the next field. Her intestines had been removed, and were not found until the next day, together with her heart.

Almost immediately the phrase “Fanny Adams” became popular slang for a cheap type of chopped meat you could buy in tins, thence it passed into navy slang as “Sweet Fanny Adams”, meaning “nothing at all” and remains in use to this day, sometimes abbreviated to “Sweet FA”. Nothing at all, it seems, was the value of an innocent child’s life.

Today it sounds unbelievably cruel that people could make a joke about such a terrible crime, but I guess that just tells you how brutal life was. I’d always thought “Fanny Adams” was a euphemism for “Fuck All” but its origin is clearly far darker. I’ll never been able to use that expression again without thinking of its origin and, perhaps, after reading this, neither will you…

## The PostDoc Apocalypse: How it spreads (via The Upturned Microscope)

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on June 20, 2011 by telescoper

Part One of this proved quite popular, so I thought I’d direct you to Part Two…

via The Upturned Microscope

## One Day I’ll Fly Away

Posted in Music with tags , on June 20, 2011 by telescoper

En route to the airport again, this suddenly popped into my mind. The tune was a hit for Randy Crawford in 1980 when I was still at school, but this version, which I like a much more than the original single, was made just about five years ago. It’s a lovely song by a much underrated singer, featured here with the Joe Sample Trio.

## LHC Hasn’t Destroyed Earth Yet (via Today’s New Reason to Believe)

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

I thought I’d reblog this as it relates to the pronouncements about the LHC by Otto Rössler I mentioned yesterday.

As I predicted nearly two-and-a-half years ago, it looks like the Earth will survive the most powerful accelerator ever built. A recent article validates my prediction. On September 8, 2008, I recorded a Science News Flash podcast addressing concerns that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) would produce a shower of black holes that would, in turn, consume Earth from the inside out. I predicted that Earth would not only survive the experiments perfor … Read More

via Today's New Reason to Believe

You might also want to read this older blog post about the kerfuffle when the LHC was switched on. I quote:

Rössler turns out to be quite a strange fellow. He is an MD who stayed in academia, moved into biochemistry, and then made a name in the relatively new field of chaos theory. He seems to think of himself as a visionary, having founded a new field of physics called “endophysics,” which is supposed to take into account the observer’s inner state. Or something like that. Have you heard of it? Neither had I.

Recently, at the age of sixty-eight, Rössler, despite having no particle physics or blackhole physics credentials, announced that he had found important new results, alarmingly relevant to the destructive potential of microscopic black holes in LHC proton-proton collisions. Rössler variously estimates the likelihood of such blackhole production by LHC as being from 10% to 50% though he appears to have pulled these numbers out of a hat.

And there’s also this most excellent video that John Butterworth told me about because he’s in it…

## Ode on Indolence

Posted in Poetry with tags , on June 19, 2011 by telescoper

Since I’m too lazy this Sunday to do anything too strenuous, I thought instead I would post the poem that was read to us on Friday morning. Appropriately enough it’s the Ode on Indolence, written around 1819 by John Keats. The opening epigram is actually from the New Testament (Matthew 6: 28-29), which, in the King James version I have, reads

28. And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin:

29. And yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

The poem isn’t just about being lazy, of course. It’s actually about the importance to the creative mind of having time for restful contemplation, i.e. just sitting and thinking about things. Call it meditation if you like. I’m sure that’s essential for artists and poets, but I also think we scientists need it too although finding time to think is increasingly difficult when you’re on a treadmill designed to mass produce “research outputs” for assessment by the factory bosses…