Archive for January, 2012

Planck Exclusive!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 25, 2012 by telescoper

I forgot to mention on this blog some important news about the Planck mission which many people here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University are heavily involved in.

Here is the official announcement from The Planck Science Team home page:

The High Frequency Instrument (HFI) on ESA’s Planck mission has completed its survey of the remnant light from the Big Bang. The sensor ran out of coolant on January 14 2012 as expected, ending its ability to detect this faint energy. Planck was launched in May 2009, and the minimum requirement for success was for the spacecraft to complete two whole surveys of the sky. In the end, Planck worked perfectly for 30 months, about twice the span originally required, and completed five full-sky surveys with both instruments. Able to work at slightly higher temperatures than HFI, the Low Frequency Instrument (LFI) will continue surveying the sky for a large part of 2012, providing even more data to improve the Planck final results.

For more details, see here. Basically, the HFI instrument consists of bolometers contained in a cryogenic system to keep them cool and thus suppress thermal noise in order to enable them to detect the very weak signals coming from the cosmic microwave background radiation. The helium required to maintain the low temperature is gradually lost as Planck operates, and has now run out. The HFI bolometers consequently warmed up, which makes them useless for cosmological work, so the instrument has been switched off. I’m sure you all understand how uncomfortable it is when your bolometers get too hot…

You can find a host of public information about Planck here but the scientific work is under strict embargo until early next year. However, as a Telescoper exclusive I am able to offer you a sneak preview of the top secret Planck data well in advance of official release. If you want to see what Planck scientists have been looking at for the last couple of years, just click here.

Random Memories

Posted in Biographical, Columbo with tags , , on January 24, 2012 by telescoper

I stumbled across a box of old photographs last night, so prepare for a post of pure self-indulgence as I take you on a walk down my memory lane:

Brighton beach, winter 1990...

Me overlooking the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut, Deir-al-Bahari, Egypt, 1991

Me and my mum, just after I collected my DPhil at the post-graduation ceremony in Brighton, 1989.

On a rooftop in Rome with a friend (now "an old friend", but still not as old as me!), also taken in 1989.

This last one was taken a bit later – not sure when, exactly. And for those of you who were wondering, yes I do still miss the little bugger…

Young Columbo

Posted in Uncategorized on January 23, 2012 by telescoper

I see that the Academic Journal Racket also applies to mathematics! I also see that WordPress has reinstated the “reblog” feature!

Gowers's Weblog

The Dutch publisher Elsevier publishes many of the world’s best known mathematics journals, including Advances in Mathematics, Comptes Rendus, Discrete Mathematics, The European Journal of Combinatorics, Historia Mathematica, Journal of Algebra, Journal of Approximation Theory, Journal of Combinatorics Series A, Journal of Functional Analysis, Journal of Geometry and Physics, Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications, Journal of Number Theory, Topology, and Topology and its Applications. For many years, it has also been heavily criticized for its business practices. Let me briefly summarize these criticisms.

1. It charges very high prices — so far above the average that it seems quite extraordinary that they can get away with it.

2. One method that they have for getting away with it is a practice known as “bundling”, where instead of giving libraries the choice of which journals they want to subscribe to, they offer them the choice between a large collection of…

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Do you iTunesU?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on January 23, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve spent all morning re-writing a grant proposal for the umpteenth time, so I thought I’d take a short break for a sandwich and take the opportunity to dash off a quick blogette on a topic of topical topicality.

An interesting Twitter discussion took place on Friday, instigated by Leighton Andrews who asked the apparently innocuous question why so few Welsh universities have put content on iTunes U? I suppose what sparked this off was that a new version of the relevant app had just been released last week. In fact I think there’s only one Welsh university that has any material on iTunesU at all (the University of Glamorgan).

My response to the question was basically that, at least here in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University,  we don’t have the resources to put a significant quantity of the more interesting content (e.g. video lectures and podcasts) on this resource. For one thing, although iTunesU is available for both Mac and PC platforms from what I understand you need to buy Apple software in order to create content to upload, which means having to buy Apple products in order to do so. Some of my colleagues have Macs and/or iPads, but I don’t. I think Apple kit is overpriced and gimmicky, but some of my colleagues go even further and consider Apple corp to be an intrinsically evil outfit that we shouldn’t have anything to do with, on principle.

However, those opinions don’t really matter because it would only take a few people with (possibly) dirty Macintoshes in the whole university to set it all up and there are undoubtedly many, especially younger, people out there who would want to see content there.  See, for example, this blog post which shows that having appropriate stuff on iTunesU could have a significant impact on undergraduate admissions. Perhaps we should put our open-day talks etc there and use it as a kind of shop window for the School?

We do have quite a lot of online material already – deposited on a system formerly known as Blackboard but now called Learning Central. Most of us distribute written notes, problem sets and the like on there and I think the students find it quite useful. I don’t know for sure how easy it would be to transfer such material to iTunes, but it can’t be that difficult, can it?

The problem is with the more complicated content such as videos. I’ve experimented with video lectures in the past and quickly came to the conclusion that you have to spend an awful lot of time and money to do them properly, otherwise they are excruciating.  A single fixed camera recording a traditional 50-minute lecture is as dull as ditchwater to watch, and we don’t have the resources to do anything more sophisticated. I think 5 or 10 minute supplementary videos is the way to go with this.

There isn’t much specifically physics content on iTunesU from the UK, apart of course from the Open University which has posted a large amount of material.  Oxford University has also made some very nice things freely available, including lectures on Quantum Mechanics from James Binney.

But then the basic question is who benefits from doing this? Our own (fee-paying) students already get material online for free from Learning Central. Should we make this available for free on a worldwide basis? Contributing to the general education of the world’s population is surely a good thing for a University to be doing, but is it consistent with the New World Order in which universities are merely businesses and students merely customers?

Anyway, I’d be interested to hear any comments on the usefulness (or otherwise) of iTunesU from teaching staff, students and interested parties here or elsewhere. The comments box awaits…

Serious Brain Power – a reminder!

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on January 22, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve posted already about this initiative, but there’s no harm doing a bit of re-advertising on behalf of Cardiff University’s new recruitment campaign which has the slogan Serious Brain Power.  A major initiative is under way to attract high quality researchers to Cardff (either at Chair level for established academics or at the level of a Fellowship for those earlier in their careers)  across a range of academic disciplines, including STEM subjects.

In the School of Physics & Astronomy we’ve already appointed four new lecturers in Physics over the last year, and will also be joined by a new Professor of Experimental Physics next year, all independently of this scheme, but it would be great if we could attract even more excellent new people into the School via the new initiative; for an advert see here.

At fellowship level the positions  provide a greater degree of independence than a normal postdoctoral research assistantship, including the possibility to direct one’s own research programme. The number of  similar positions funded by research councils  is  dwindling owing to cutbacks in the research council budgets, making such a post a particularly valuable and attractive proposition.

Although this is a personal blog, and therefore not officially part of the recruitment campaign, it occurred to me that readers of this blog might well be interested in these opportunities, hence the reason for posting this message. Applicants for astronomy and cosmology would be welcomed,  by me at any rate! It’s a rare opportunity to join a Physics department that’s actually growing in size…

To find out more about the Fellowships and Chairs, see here. Feel free to contact me informally if you have any questions, and  please also feel free to pass this on to anyone you think might be interested!

Dead of Night

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on January 22, 2012 by telescoper

It not being possible to watch Match of the Day last night – I didn’t particularly want to watch the horror story of Newcastle’s 5-2 drubbing by Fulham – I rummaged around in my stack of DVDs of old films and came up with Dead of Night. I was actually very happy to have the excuse  to watch this classic British horror film for the umpteenth time. I’ve actually blogged about a bit of this film before. There is a sequence (to me by far the scariest in the  film) about a ventriloquist who is gradually possessed by his evil dummy which came up in a post I did about Automatonophobia some time ago.

Anyway, Dead of Night was made in 1945 by Ealing Studios and you only have to watch it to appreciate why it its held in such high regard by critics to this day. Indeed you can see ideas in it which have been repeated in a host of subsequent (and usually inferior) horror flicks. I’m not going to spoil it by saying too much about the plot. I’m sure there are many (younger) readers who have never heard of this wonderful film and I don’t want to spoil their enjoyment of it by giving away too much. I would say though that it’s basically a portmanteau film, i.e. a series of essentially separate stories (to the extent of having a different director for each such segment) embedded within an overall narrative. It also involves an intriguing plot device similar to those situations in which you are dreaming, but in the dream you wake up and don’t know whether you’re actually awake or still dreaming…

Anyway, you can watch the whole film on Youtube if you like but you have to keep clicking through the different sections used to be able to watch it on Youtube, but it’s sadly now been removed

It’s the “dream-within-a-dream” structure – what physicists would call a self-similar hierarchy – of the overall framework of this movie that gives it its particular interest from the point of view of this blog, because it played an important role in the evolution of theoretical cosmology. One evening in 1946 the mathematicians and astrophysicts Fred Hoyle, Hermann Bondi and Tommy Gold went to see Dead of Night in Cambridge. Discussing the film afterwards they came up with the idea of the steady state cosmology, the first scientific papers about which were published in 1948. For the best part of two decades this theory was a rival to the now-favoured “Big Bang” (a term coined by Fred Hoyle which was intended to be a derogatory description of the opposing theory).

In the Big Bang theory there is a single “creation event”, so this particular picture of the Universe has a definite beginning, and from that point the arrow of time endows it with a linear narrative. In the steady state theory, matter is created continuously in small bits (via a hypothetical field called the C-field) so the Universe has no beginning and its time evolution not unlike that of the film.

Modern cosmologists sometimes dismiss the steady state cosmology as a bit of an aberration, a distraction from the One True Big Bang but it was undeniably a beautiful theory. The problem was that so many of its proponents refused to accept the evidence that they were wrong.  Supporters of  disfavoured theories rarely change their minds, in fact. The better theory wins out because younger folk tend to support it, while the recalcitrant old guard defending  theirs in spite of the odds eventually die out.

And another thing. If Fred Hoyle had thought of it he might have  called the field responsible for creating matter a scalar field, rather than the C-field, and it would now be much more widely recognized that he (unwittingly) invented many elements of modern inflationary cosmology. In fact, in some versions of inflation the Universe as a whole is very similar to the steady state model, only the continuous creation is not of individual particles or atoms, but of entire Big-Bang “bubbles” that can grow to the size of our observable Universe. So maybe the whole idea was actually right after all..

Now winter nights enlarge

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on January 21, 2012 by telescoper

Now winter nights enlarge
The number of their hours,
And clouds their storms discharge
Upon the airy towers.
Let now the chimneys blaze,
And cups o’erflow with wine;
Let well-tuned words amaze
With harmony divine.
Now yellow waxen lights
Shall wait on honey love,
While youthful revels, masques, and courtly sights
Sleep’s leaden spells remove.

This time doth well dispense
With lovers’ long discourse;
Much speech hath some defence,
Though beauty no remorse.
All do not all things well;
Some measures comely tread,
Some knotted riddles tell,
Some poems smoothly read.
The summer hath his joys
And winter his delights;
Though love and all his pleasures are but toys,
They shorten tedious nights.

by Thomas Campion (1567-1620).


Giant Steps, from Astrophysics to Jazz

Posted in Jazz, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 21, 2012 by telescoper

I’m indebted to Alan Heavens (currently of Edinburgh University, shortly to move to Imperial College) for drawing my attention to outstanding young jazz pianist and composer Dan Tepfer. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of Dan’s music, over the past few days and I think he’s brilliant. What’s even more interesting about him from the point of view of this blog is his background:  he is a former Astrophysics student (at the University of Edinburgh). He changed direction away from academic studies in order to focus on his music, relocated to New York and has subsequently received rave reviews for his performances both live and on various albums. He tours extensively in the USA and worldwide; next time he’s in the UK I’m definitely going to check out one of his live gigs. Do visit his website; as a taster here’s his  highly original (and pretty long) live version of the John Coltrane classic Giant Steps..

The Unknown Citizen

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 20, 2012 by telescoper

I thought of this poem when I was moaning the other day about the widespread use of the term “Citizen Science” to describe, e.g., the admirable activities of the Zooniverse. One aspect of their work, planethunters, employs enthusiastic amateurs volunteers from the general public to search for signs of exoplanets, for example, with a notable success during the recent series BBC Stargazing Live.

The problem I have with using the term “Citizen Science” is that it logically excludes those of us who happen to be professional scientists; we are citizens too! At least I hope we are…

Not that I’m pedantic or anything.

I like the word amateur which is derived from the latin verb amare (“to love”) and hence properly means someone who does a task out of love, rather than for money. I’d agree, though, that this has acquired negative connotations of amateurishness (i.e. “unprofessional”) so is probably unsuitable for modern use. But what other word would be better? I just had a look at my thesaurus and it suggests, e.g. “votary”, “layperson” and even “groupie” although I don’t think the latter will catch on!

Anyway, as you will see,  none of this has really got anything to do with the poem, which I’m just posting because the word “Citizen” made me remember it. Apologies for the small font size, but I wanted to ensure that the line breaks didn’t get messed up.

(To JS/07/M/378 This Marble Monument Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn’t a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Installment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace; when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his generation.
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their education.
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

by W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

Save of the Century

Posted in Football with tags , , , , on January 19, 2012 by telescoper

I’ve posted a few times about science and sport, but here’s a bit of action that seems to defy the laws of physics. I remember watching this match, a group game at Guadalajara (Mexico) between England and Brazil from the 1970 World Cup, live on TV when I was seven years old. The Brazil team of 1970 was arguably the finest collection of  players ever to grace a football field and the names of Jairzinho, Carlos Alberto, Rivelino and, of course, Pelé, were famous even in our school playground. The England team of 1970 was also very good, but they were made to look very ordinary that day – with one notable exception.

The only thing I remember well about the game itself  was this save – the best of many excellent stops – by legendary goalkeeper Gordon Banks. I’ve seen it hundreds of times since, and still can’t understand how he managed to stop this header from Pelé. You can tell from Bobby Moore’s reaction (No. 6, on the line) that he also thought Brazil had scored…

Here’s the description of this action from wikipedia:

Playing at pace, Brazil were putting England under enormous pressure and an attack was begun by captain Carlos Alberto who sent a fizzing low ball down the right flank for the speedy Jairzinho to latch on to. The Brazilian winger sped past left back Terry Cooper and reached the byline. Stretching slightly, he managed to get his toes underneath the fast ball and deliver a high but dipping cross towards the far post. Banks, like all goalkeepers reliant on positional sensibility, had been at the near post and suddenly had to turn on his heels and follow the ball to its back post destination.

Waiting for the ball was Pelé, who had arrived at speed and with perfect timing. He leapt hard at the ball above England right back Tommy Wright and thundered a harsh, pacy downward header towards Banks’ near post corner. The striker shouted “Goal!” as he connected with the ball. Banks was still making his way across the line from Jairzinho’s cross and in the split-second of assessment the incident allowed, it seemed impossible for him to get to the ball. He also had to dive slightly backwards and down at the same time which is almost physically impossible. Yet he hurled himself downwards and backwards and got the base of his thumb to the ball, with the momentum sending him cascading to the ground. It was only when he heard the applause and praise of captain Bobby Moore and then looked up and saw the ball trundling towards the advertising hoardings at the far corner, that he realised he’d managed to divert the ball over the bar – he’d known he got a touch but still assumed the ball had gone in. England were not being well received by the locals after cutting comments made about Mexico prior to the tournament by Ramsey, but spontaneous applause rang around the Guadalajara, Jalisco stadium as Banks got back into position to defend the resulting corner. Pelé, who’d begun to celebrate a goal when he headed the ball, would later describe the save as the greatest he’d ever seen.

Here is Gordon Banks describing it in his own words.

Brazil deservedly went on to win the game, but only by a single goal. Without Gordon Banks, England would have been well and truly hammered.