Archive for October 12, 2016

General Relativity and Cosmology: Unsolved Questions and Future Directions [CL]

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 12, 2016 by telescoper

I missed this when it appeared on the arXiv last week, but now that I’ve read it I couldn’t resist reblogging this nice review of the current state of General Relativity and its alternatives, with an emphasis on the cosmological ramifications.


For the last 100 years, General Relativity (GR) has taken over the gravitational theory mantle held by Newtonian Gravity for the previous 200 years. This article reviews the status of GR in terms of its self-consistency, completeness, and the evidence provided by observations, which have allowed GR to remain the champion of gravitational theories against several other classes of competing theories. We pay particular attention to the role of GR and gravity in cosmology, one of the areas in which one gravity dominates and new phenomena and effects challenge the orthodoxy. We also review other areas where there are likely conflicts pointing to the need to replace or revise GR to represent correctly observations and consistent theoretical framework. Observations have long been key both to the theoretical liveliness and viability of GR. We conclude with a discussion of the likely developments over the next 100 years.

Read this paper…

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Paul Carr’s Lunchtime Concert at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , on October 12, 2016 by telescoper

Yesterday I went to my first-ever lunchtime event at St David’s Hall in Cardiff, which was a concert of organ music performed by Paul Carr. There wasn’t a very big crowd, which must have been quite unsettling for the soloist in such a big venue, but the recital was thoroughly enjoyable. The eclectic programme consisted of:

Alfred Hollins: Concert Overture No 2 in C minor

JS Bach: Trio Sonata No 5 in C, BWV 529 (3 movements)

Antonio Soler:  Concerto No 6 for two organs (Minué)

Hans-Martin Kiefer:  Die ganze Welt hast du uns überlassen (Blues Chorale)

Eric Coates, arr Edward Marsh:  The Dambusters March

Marco Enrico Bossi: Scherzo in G minor

Louis Vierne: Two movements from Symphony No. 1

The reason I attended – apart from just having the rare opportunity to hear the magnificent organ at St David’s Hall – was the Bach Trio Sonata. Bach wrote six of these and they’re all an absolute joy to listen to, so for me the concert was worth it just for that piece.  I have to admit that I was also intrigued to the music by Eric Coates for the 1955 film The Dam Busters played on an organ. Paul Carr actually pointed out that this piece is a nod in the direction of Elgar: its fanfare-like opening and big “very English sounding tune” is really reminiscent Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1. Indeed I gather the famous “bouncing bomb” melody has even been used for a hymn (“God is our strength and refuge”, based on Psalm 46). Anyway, the climactic ending of the piece, played on a huge organ like the one at St David’s Hall with all the stops out, is powerfully effective, and almost as noisy as I imagine flying in a Lancaster bomber must be.

The other pieces were completely unfamiliar to me before, but constituted a very pleasant menu for a lunchtime treat, all wonderfully served by Paul Carr. The only problem with lunchtime concerts, is that they don’t give you time for an actual lunch!


Thinking of Applying for a PhD Place in Physics or Astronomy?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on October 12, 2016 by telescoper

This morning I am to give a short talk to interested students within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University about postgraduate research in which I aim to pass on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. Since I’ve finished writing the talk more than the usual few minutes before I have to deliver it, I thought I’d jot down here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £14296 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable. There is a fee (currently £4121) payable for a PhD course, but that only comes into play if you are planning to fund yourself. If you receive a studentship it will normally cover the fee as an additional component. What I mean by that is you don’t need to pay it out of the stipend, it is separate. In top of that, research council funding also supplies a Research Training Grant which covers, e.g., travel and small items of equipment so you don’t need to pay for those out of your stipend either.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

Don’t be shy! There’s nothing at all wrong with being pro-active about this process. Contact academic staff at other universities by email and ask them about research, PhD opportunities. That will make a good impression. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Although we’re all keen to recruit good PhD students for our own departments, we academics are  conscious that it is also our job to give impartial advice. Ask your tutor’s opinion.

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following September/October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…