Archive for June, 2014

Synesis, Metonymy and the FIFA World Cup

Posted in Football with tags , , , , , , on June 23, 2014 by telescoper

I was asleep during last night’s dramatic World Cup game between Portugal and USA which ended in a 2-2 draw thanks to an equaliser in injury time from Portugal. That’s why I found out about the result from Twitter when I woke up this morning. I was struck by the fact that virtually all comments from Americans talked about their team in the singular (e.g. “USA has drawn against Portugal”) whereas on this side of the Atlantic we almost always refer to a team in the plural (e.g. “England have lost against everyone”).

Strictly speaking, the singular form is correct (as was Nelson with his “England expects..” message at Trafalgar) but that doesn’t mean that British English is necessarily wrong. This is an example of a figure of speech called a metonymic shift, whereby a thing or concept is referred to not by its own name but by the name of something associated with it. An example is found in the phrase “to boil a kettle”: obviously it is not the kettle that gets boiled, but the water within it, but this isn’t an error as such, merely a grammatical device. Metonymic shifts also take place when we refer to the Government as “Westminster” or the film-making industry as “Hollywood”.

When we come to the “England lose” verses “England loses” debate, the noun “England” can be taken to mean “The England team” (singular) but in British English the metonymic shift takes this to mean a collection of individual players (plural), i.e. the meaning is transferred from the “England team” to the “England players”. The use of a verb indicating a singular subject constitutes “formal agreement” with “team” whereas the plural form would be “notional agreement”.

I know that this usage is regarded as incorrect by American colleagues I have discussed it with, to the extent that it actually grates on them a bit. But I think “the team are fighting amongst themselves” is a better construction than any I can think of that includes formal rather than notional agreement. Moreover this kind of construction is correct in languages with more precise grammatical rules than English. The Greek term synesis refers to a grammatical alteration in which a word takes the gender or number not of the word with which it should regularly agree, but of some other word implied by that word, a device much used in both Greek and Roman poetry and also in rhetoric. The distinction between “the Government is united” and “the Government are divided” offers a particularly interesting example.

However, having done my best to stick up for “England” as a plural, I can’t help thinking that if they ever learn how to play like a team than as a collection of individuals they might not be so strongly associated with the verb “to lose”…

Welcome Reception

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on June 22, 2014 by telescoper

So I made it to Talinn, where it is fairly cold and rainy, for the IAU Symposium No 308 on the Zel’dovich Universe . Here is the description of the conference from the website

It will be 100 years since the birth of Yakov Zeldovich, whose seminal work paved the way towards a theoretical understanding of the complex weblike patterns that have been observed in our Universe.

Impressive progress of observational studies, of modelling and simulations and of analytical work has led to revolutionary new insights into the structure and emergence of the Cosmic Web. With the coming years marked by major observational developments – in terms of large new telescopes, instruments and corresponding versatile surveys – and with the continuing growth of computational resources, the window will be opened towards understanding the dynamics and observing the evolution of cosmic structure.

The symposium will focus on the subject of the structure, constituents, properties, dynamics and analysis of the cosmic web in the large-scale cosmic matter and galaxy distribution. The symposium will synthesize the insights obtained from many different observational and theoretical studies and set out the lines for the major upcoming scientific programs that will not only extend our view over a far larger fraction of the visible Universe but also allow the systematic investigation of the evolution of cosmic structure.

I’m looking forward to the meeting, which starts properly tomorrow morning but it was nice to have a reception event this evening to welcome those of us who made it to Estonia in time. Thp ere was plenty of wine on offer, and I had the chance to meet up with quite a few people I haven’t seen for ages:


First impressions of Estonia are that the word for “Taxi” is “Tacso” and the word for “Big Bang” is also slightly different:


Other than that the natives seem friendly and my hotel, though inexpensive, is positively luxurious. The crucial challenge, however, is the quality of the breakfast, which will have to wait until tomorrow morning!

Knit your own Neutralino

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 21, 2014 by telescoper

I thought I’d give you a sneak preview of something soon to feature at the forthcoming Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition. With input from particle physicists from the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sussex, the inestimable Dorothy Lamb has designed a “Knit your own Neutralino” pack, which contains a knitting pattern and embellishments (wool not included), that can be used to construct a plushie representing the lightest neutralino, χ01, a candidate for the dark matter that pervades the Universe.


Here are some examples, as produced by Dorothy herself:


Here are some more elaborate variations, representing (I think) different types of chargino.


Whatever they are, they’re a lot of fun and in my opinion more than a little bit camp!

I think we should introduce knitting as part of the “transferable skills” element of our physics courses. If we did, Dorothy would definitely graduate with first class honours!

Music for the Solstice

Posted in Music with tags , on June 21, 2014 by telescoper

Well, in case you didn’t realize, the summer solstice (when the Sun reaches its most northerly point in the sky) occurred at 11.51 BST today. I guess that means it’s all downhill from here. Anyway, this gives me some sort of excuse for me posting a piece of music I’ve loved ever since I was a young child for its energy and wit. It’s the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was written by Felix Mendelssohn when he was just 17 years old, and even so it’s his Opus 21. This performance is by the Leipzig Genwandhausorchester conducted by Kurt Mazur. Enjoy!

Published BICEP2 paper admits “Unquantifiable Uncertainty”..

Posted in Bad Statistics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 20, 2014 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that the BICEP2 results that excited so much press coverage earlier this year have now been published in Physical Review Letters. A free PDF version of the piece can be found here.  The published version incorporates a couple of important caveats that have arisen since the original release of the results prior to peer review. In particular, in the abstract (discussing models of the dust foreground emission:

However, these models are not sufficiently constrained by external public data to exclude the possibility of dust emission bright enough to explain the entire excess signal. Cross correlating BICEP2 against 100 GHz maps from the BICEP1 experiment, the excess signal is confirmed with 3σ significance and its spectral index is found to be consistent with that of the CMB, disfavoring dust at 1.7 σ.

Since the primary question-mark over the original result was whether the signal was due to dust or CMB, this corresponds to an admission that the detection is really at very low significance. I’ll set aside my objection to the frequentist language used in this statement!

There is an interesting comment in the footnotes too:

In the preprint version of this paper an additional DDM2 model was included based on information taken from Planck conference talks. We noted the large uncertainties on this and the other dust models presented. In the Planck dust polarization paper [96] which has since appeared the maps have been masked to include only regions “where the systematic uncertainties are small, and where the dust signal dominates total emission.” This mask excludes our field. We have concluded the information used for the DDM2 model has unquantifiable uncertainty. We look forward to performing a cross-correlation analysis against the Planck 353 GHz polarized maps in a future publication.

The emphasis is mine. The phrase made me think of this:


The paper concludes:

More data are clearly required to resolve the situation. We note that cross-correlation of our maps with the Planck 353 GHz maps will be more powerful than use of those maps alone in our field. Additional data are also expected from many other experiments, including Keck Array observations at 100 GHz in the 2014 season.

In other words, what I’ve been saying from the outset.


A Clean Sweep For Team MPS

Posted in Education, Sport with tags , , on June 19, 2014 by telescoper

It is with great pleasure that I announce another outstanding result for the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS). While minor unexciting sporting contests go on elsewhere in the world, all true sports fans have had their eyes literally glued on events on Falmer campus. Sussex University’s annual Fit to Get Committed Commit to Get Fit reached its final stages yesterday with the audience literally electrified by a thrilling Rounders competition. Team MPS didn’t win that event; although playing very well they were just a bit short of clichés, especially in the final third.

I wasn’t able to attend today’s lunchtime prize-giving event owing to a prior commitment. In fact I was on a course learning how to make legally fair disciplinary decisions. Fortunately this turned out to be an unnecessary precaution, as the MPS Commit to Get Fit team won all the awards!

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Well done to Matt for winning Best Blog by an Individual and to Naomi who was presented with a Special Individual Achievement award for her dedication as Team Captain, her personal achievements and fundraising activities where she dressed up as a musketeer for the day, together with Matt, to raise money for the Rocking Horse Foundation. Together they managed to raise a whopping £210!

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Last but not least, Team MPS scooped the top award with a trophy for Most Inspiring Team.

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So once again the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences sweeps the board. Literally.


Song for my Father

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on June 19, 2014 by telescoper

I was saddened last night to hear of the death at the age of 85 of the great Jazz pianist Horace Silver. BY way of a small tribute here’s the original composition Song for my Father as issued on Blue Note in 1964. Silver managed to fuse the forthright hard bop style he pioneered with the (then) trendy Bossa Nova beat to create a jazz classic. Listen out for a wonderful solo by the fabulous Joe Henderson on tenor sax too.

RIP Horace Silver (1928-2014)

What makes a perfect cartoon?

Posted in Art with tags , on June 18, 2014 by telescoper

I don’t know the answer to that question, but in my opinion this example from last week’s Private Eye comes pretty close. It made me laugh out loud anyway! 🙂


The Bomb that wasn’t..

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on June 17, 2014 by telescoper

Yesterday I travelled back from Cardiff to Brighton via London. Nothing particularly remarkable about that usually, although I am a bit jinxed when it comes to rail travel, and the first half of the journey was indeed fairly straightforward. I left Cardiff at 13.25 and reached London just after 3.30. Not being in a hurry and the weather being reasonable I decided to find out how long it would take to walk from Paddington to Victoria instead of taking the Underground. The answer is about 30 minutes. It’s also quite a nice walk through Hyde Park along the side of the Serpentine and then down to Victoria via Grosvenor Place. I was there just after 4pm.

Anyway, when I got to Victoria there was a huge crowd of people standing outside the station. I thought it was a bit early for the rush hour, but entered the station anyway. All the departure screens were blank. No trains in or out of Victoria for the foreseeable future. Shit.

I asked a policeman in the station what was going on and he told me that an unexploded bomb had been found near the track at Battersea Park just over the river from Victoria. The emergency services were looking into it and until they’d declared it safe no trains could pass it. He advised me to get to London Bridge station and take a Brighton train from there, but the tube station was inaccessible owing to the crowds and when I checked on my mobile it was obvious that no trains were moving from there anyway. I decided I had no choice but to wait for the problem to clear.

I went outside and waited, chatting to some of the others who were stuck like I was. After about an hour I went back inside and almost immediately a Brighton train appeared on the display screen. Platform 17. Hundreds of passengers crowded onto it until it was absolutely packed, standing room only and not much of that. Then the lights went out. Ten minutes later we were all told to get off and get on the train on Platform 16 instead.  We did.

I had actually found a seat on the first train, which meant I was one of the last people off it when we had to move. I was standing on the second one as it trundled out of Victoria. Still, at least I was leaving. It was about 17.20, over an hour after I arrived in Victoria.

The train called at Clapham Junction, where more people tried to get on but couldn’t because we were already so full it was clearly dangerous. Similar story at East Croydon. Then we were approaching Gatwick Airport. We were held at a signal for about ten minutes when the driver announced that the train wouldn’t go to Brighton after all, but terminate at Gatwick.

When things like that happen you get the feeling that the train operators are deliberately making things as bad as possible. We were all heavily delayed already, so a decision was taken to make us even later. I was fuming.

Many people with flights to catch went into Gatwick airport, but I had to make my way against the tide to Platform 7, where the next train to Brighton was due just after six. It was an already overcrowded First Capital Connect train into which I had to squeeze. I stood all the way to Brighton, which took the best part of an hour. I got to Brighton station shortly before 7pm, almost three hours after I arrived at Victoria. People can cycle from London to Brighton in less time than that.

Now it transpires that the bomb at Battersea Park wasn’t a bomb at Battersea Park. It was a leaking gas cylinder. Had the police been confused or were they simply trying to make it seem more exciting than it was?

After I got home I continued to follow Southern Rail on Twitter. Although the bomb/gas cylinder was cleared by 5pm, the chaos on the railways continued until late at night, with cancellations across the entire network as the operations manager made panicky decisions that made a small emergency into a total implosion of the rail service. Heads should roll for this kind of screw-up, but I doubt they will.

Time does not bring relief

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on June 17, 2014 by telescoper

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year’s leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year’s bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide.
There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim.
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, “There is no memory of him here!”
And so stand stricken, so remembering him.

by Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950).