Archive for June, 2016

The Day Sussex Died

Posted in History with tags , , , on June 30, 2016 by telescoper

In advance of tomorrow’s sombre commemorations of the centenary of the start of the Battle of the Somme, I thought I’d write a short preliminary piece about a related centenary to be marked today, 30th June 2016.

On this day in 1916 there took place the Battle of the Boar’s Head, the name given to a German salient near Richebourg-l’Avoué in the Pas de Calais region. This battle is remembered locally here in Brighton as The Day Sussex Died. The following brief account is based on the wikipedia article.

The attack on the Boar’s Head was launched on 30 June 1916, as an attempt to divert German attention from the Battle of the Somme which was to begin on the following day, 1 July. The attack was conducted by the 11th, 12th and 13th (Southdowns) Battalions of the Royal Sussex Regiment, part of the 116th Southdowns Brigade of the 39th Division.

A preliminary bombardment and wire-cutting by the artillery commenced on the afternoon of 29 June and was reported to be very effective. The final bombardment commenced shortly before 3:00 a.m. and the 12th and 13th battalions went over the top (most for the first time) shortly afterwards, the 11th Battalion providing carrying parties. The guns lifted their fire off the German front trench and put down an intense barrage in support. The infantry reached the German trenches, bombing and bayoneting their way into the German front line trench and held it for about four hours.

The second trench was captured and held for only half an hour, during which several counter-attacks were repulsed and then the raiders withdrew, because of a shortage of ammunition and mounting casualties. The German support position was not reached by the infantry, because the German defensive tactics included shelling trenches where the British had gained a foothold.

In fewer than five hours the three Southdowns Battalions of the Royal Sussex lost 17 officers and 349 men killed, including 12 sets of brothers, three from one family. A further 1,000 men were wounded or taken prisoner.

The corps commander looked upon the attack as a raid and considered it to be successful.

Here is a photograph of A Company of the 13th Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, taken shortly before the battle; by its end, over 80% of these men were dead.


The losses at the Boar’s Head were shortly to be dwarfed by the horrendous scale of the slaughter on the Somme, but their impact  on families and indeed whole villages in rural Sussex was devastating.  Those who lost their lives in armed conflict should never been forgotten, nor should their sacrifices be appropriated for political ends.

Lest we forget.


The Habitability of the Universe

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff on June 30, 2016 by telescoper

It’s important not to get carried away by the post-referendum doom and gloom. Abraham Loeb’s recent paper on the arXiv suggests the Universe will only be habitable for the next 10,000,000,000,000 years or so. This means that the current state of political chaos  won’t last for ever, though I wonder the paper doesn’t make it clear if Article 50 will have been triggered by the time the last star goes out.

Is life most likely to emerge at the present cosmic time near a star like the Sun? We consider the habitability of the Universe throughout cosmic history, and conservatively restrict our attention to the context of “life as we know it” and the standard cosmological model, LCDM. The habitable cosmic epoch started shortly after the first stars formed, about 30 Myr after the Big Bang, and will end about 10 Tyr from now, when all stars will die. We review the formation history of habitable planets and find that unless habitability around low mass stars is suppressed, life is most likely to exist near 0.1 solar mass stars ten trillion years from now. Spectroscopic searches for biosignatures in the atmospheres of transiting Earth-mass planets around low mass stars will determine whether present-day life is indeed premature or typical from a cosmic perspective.

The BrExit Threat to British Science

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on June 29, 2016 by telescoper

After a couple of days away dealing with some personal business I’ve now time to make a few comments about the ongoing repercussions following last week’s referendum vote to Leave the European Union.

First of all on the general situation. Legally speaking the referendum decision by itself changes nothing at all. Referendums have no constitutional status in the United Kingdom and are not legally binding. The Prime Minister David Cameron has declined to activate (the now famous) Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which would initiate a two-year negotiated withdrawal, preferring to leave this to whomever succeeds him following his resignation. None of the likely contenders for the unenviable position of next Prime Minister seems keen to pull the trigger very quickly either. The United Kingdom therefore remains a member of the European Union and there is no clear picture of when that might change.

The rest of the European Union obviously wants the UK to leave as soon as possible, not just because we’ve indicated that we want to, but because  we have always been never been very committed or reliable partners. In the words of Jean-Claude Juncker: ‘It is not an amicable divorce, but it was not an intimate love affair anyway.’

I don’t blame the 27 remaining members for wanting us to get on with getting out, because uncertainty is bad for business. Two years is more than enough time for big European businesses to write British producers out of their supply chains and for international companies now based in the United Kingdom to relocate to continental Europe. The current gridlock at Westminster merely defers this inevitable exodus. In the meantime inward investment is falling as companies defer decisions on future plans, casting a planningblight over the UK economy.

My own view, however, is that the longer the UK waits before invoking Article 50 the greater the probability that it will never be invoked at all.  This is because the next PM – probably Boris Johnson – surely knows that he will simply not be able to deliver on any of the promises he has made.

For example, there will be no access to the single market post-BrExit without free movement of people. There won’t be £350 million per week extra for the NHS either, because our GDP is falling and we never sent £350 million anyway.  All the possible deals will be so obviously far worse than the status quo that I don’t think Parliament will ever pass legislation to accept a situation is so clearly against the national interest. I may be wrong, of course, but I think the likeliest scenario is that the referendum decision is kicked into the long grass for at least the duration of the current Parliament.

That doesn’t solve the issue of BrExit blight, however. Which brings me to British science in a possible post-BrExit era. It’s all very uncertain, of course, but it seems to me that as things stand, any deal that involves free movement within Europe would be unacceptable to the powerful  UK anti-immigration lobby. This rules out a “Norway” type deal, among others, and almost certainly means there will be no access to any science EU funding schemes post 2020. Free movement is essential to the way most of these schemes operate anyway.

It has been guaranteed that funding commitments will be honoured until the end of Horizon 2020, but that assumes that holders of such grants don’t leave the UK taking the grants with them. I know of four cases of this happening already. They won’t come back even if we’re still in the European Union then.

Another probable outcomes are that:

  1. the shrinking economy will cause the UK government to abandon its ring-fence on science funding, which will  lead to cuts in domestic provision also;
  2. a steep decline in EU students (and associated income) will halt the expansion of UK science departments, and may cause some to shrink or even close;
  3. non-UK EU scientists working in the UK decide to leave anyway because the atmosphere of this country has already been poisoned by xenophobic rhetoric.

British science may “endure” after BrExit but it definitely won’t prosper. What is the least bad solution, if we cannot remain?

Answers through the comments box please!




Whither is fled the visionary gleam?

Posted in Poetry, Television with tags , , on June 26, 2016 by telescoper

The final scene of the final episode of Penny Dreadful, with excerpts from Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood by William Wordsworth.



Keep Calm and Carry On

Posted in Uncategorized on June 25, 2016 by telescoper

I’m still depressed and worried by the referendum vote, but it isn’t the British way to yield to despair. Let’s take the advice of a previous generation…


It seems clear that we are set to remain in the EU for the forseeable future, as the Leave campaigners are in no hurry to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty. I think there’s a real chance that we’ll end up staying in the EU after all.

In any case we are still in the European Union now. So. Chin up everyone. Business as usual!

P.S. Another Exit

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff on June 24, 2016 by telescoper

The news about yesterday’s vote to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union reminded me that I haven’t yet mentioned on this blog that I’ll shortly be making an exit of my own although it is completely unconnected with and far less important than the EU referendum! Hopefully this will answer a comment on a poem I recently posted

I will be stepping down as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) and leaving the University of Sussex at the end of July. I made this decision some time ago and it was annnounced publicly by the University of Sussex in May, but at that time I was busy marking examinations and doing other stuff and I never got around to mentioning it on here.

I do not propose to go into detail about the reasons for my resignation, which are a mixture of personal and professional. Suffice to say I have found the many burdens and frustrations of my current job just too onerous to manage and therefore concluded that it’s better for all concerned if I leave and make way for someone better suited to the position.

I will be taking a short career break for health reasons, and returning to the  School of Physics and Astronomy at Cardiff University, to continue my research in astrophysics and cosmology in connection with the new Data Innovation Research Institute.

My appointment in 2013 was for a 5-year term, so I am leaving after three and a half years. MPS is in a very good position, with record student numbers and research income. I would not have decided to leave if I thought my departure would in any way jeopardise the progress that has been made over the last few years or the plans already in place for the next few years.

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank everyone I’ve worked with at Sussex for being such great colleagues and wish them all the very best for the future.


Britain votes to leave the EU

Posted in Politics on June 24, 2016 by telescoper

My once and future home….


Today is a sad day for Britain and for Wales. The UK has voted to leave the EU.

Here in Wales we have overwhelmingly benefited from EU membership. Between 2007 and 2013 alone we received over £1.8billion in structural funding from the EU. Our universities prosper through EU co-operation and funding, a brand new campus in Swansea has just been completed – thanks to EU funding.

Those who have fought for remain, from across the political spectrum, have fought with love and wisdom. They have put aside party politics to fight for a greater, a stronger, a better UK – a better Wales. Thank you to everyone who got out and campaigned, who leafleted, who talked to friends about the benefits of the EU. Thank you.

Today we look back on what we have lost. Tomorrow we get together to help our broken and bruised country get back on its feet. This is a time to come together.

European Movement Council of…

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