Archive for October 18, 2016

50 Years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2016 by telescoper

On Saturday (15th October) I was back in Brighton for the first time since I left my job there at the end of July. The occasion was a very nice lunch party to celebrate 50 years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex, which started properly in 1966. It was a pleasant occasion, and great to have the chance to catch up with some people I haven’t seen for far too long. I had two stints in the Astronomy Centre: once as a student then postdoc from 1985 to 1990, and the other from 2013 to 2016 when I was Head of the School of which the Astronomy Centre is part. I had a lot more time to do research in the first incarnation than in the second!

Quite a few people present hadn’t realised I was no longer working at Sussex, which led to one or two slightly awkward conversations, but I was thankfully very far from being the centre of attention.

After the lunch itself we had short speeches from various alumni of the Astronomy Centre: esteemed science writer John Gribbbin (who was one of its first MSc students in 1966); Lord Martin Rees (who was briefly a Professor at Sussex, before he returned to Cambridge to take up the Plumian Professorship); John Barrow (who was my supervisor while I was there); Carlos Frenk (who was a postdoctoral researcher when I arrived in September 1985, but who left to take up a lectureship in Durham at the end of that year so we overlapped only for a short time); Andrew Liddle (who arrived near the end of my stay and was there for 22 years altogether, leaving at the end of 2012 to take up a post in Edinburgh); and Peter Thomas (current Director of the Astronomy Centre).

When I arrived in 1985 there were only four permanent faculty in the Astronomy Centre itself – Roger Tayler, Leon Mestel, John Barrow and Robert Smith – but research there was thriving and it was a great environment to work in. I count myself very lucky at having made such a good choice of a place to do my PhD DPhil. Leon and Robert both worked on stellar astrophysics, but after Leon’s retirement the centre increasingly focussed on cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics, which remains the case today. Roger Tayler sadly passed away in 1997, but Leon is still around: he is 89 years old and now lives in Cambridge.

Those present at the lunch were given a booklet featuring around 50 academic papers or other research “highlights”(e.g. the launch of Planck), approximately one for each year of the Astronomy Centre, chosen to be the “best” of that year. Each page was also shown as a slide during the lunch. I was thrilled to see that two of my papers (from 1987 and 1991 respectively) made it into the collection. The second one was published after I’d left Sussex, but I definitely did the work on it and submitted it while an employee of the Astronomy Centre. Andrew Liddle and John Barrow have the largest number of “greatest hits”, but the most famous paper is probably the classic “DEFW” which won Carlos Frenk and his collaborators the Gruber Prize about five years ago.

The book also contains various bits of interesting bibliometric information, such as this, which shows that the variation in the productivity of the Astronomy Centre over time.

us-astronomy-50-powerpoint

Anyway, for those who are interested, the whole collection of slides can be viewed here:

Thanks to Seb Oliver and the rest of the Astronomy Centre for organizing this very enjoyable event – and for sending me the slides! Here’s to the next 50 years of Astronomy at the University of Sussex!

 

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The Firebird (and more) at St David’s Hall

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , on October 18, 2016 by telescoper

Just a quick note to catch up on concert-going activities from last week, as for various reasons I had to skip a few days of blogging…

Last Thursday night (13th October) I was lucky enough to attend a tremendous concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff featuring the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Thomas Søndergård at the start of their 2016/7 season. The main item on the bill was the complete score for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Firebird. This is a thrillingly piece, involving a huge orchestra, numbering about a hundred musicians, including some positioned away from the rest of the orchestra. In a performance of the ballet the main orchestra would be in the pit, not on the stage, and the musicians offstage in the concert would be onstage with the dancers. If you see what I mean.

The orchestration of The Firebird is a tour de force: intricate but vividly coloured, full of excitement and colour and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales played it with great passion and aplomb. A really brilliant performance.

The Firebird filled the second half of the programme. In the first half we heard three pieces by French composers: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune by Claude Debussy; the three songs from Shéhérazade by Maurice Ravel, sung by the inestimable Sarah Connolly; and  the Flute Concerto by Jacques Ibert played by Emily Beynon. The first two pieces are fairly standard in the concert repertoire, but the last one was completely new to me. The last piece is very fine indeed, consisting of two dazzlingly virtuosic faster movements (Allegro and Allegro Scherzando) either side of a lyrical Andante. The orchestra was somewhat pared down for this part of the concert, but it’s nevertheless a piece of substantial weight and harmonic complexity. Hats off to Emily Beynon and the BBC NOW for a wonderful introduction to this work.

What a rich and varied programme for a single concert, all wonderfully played. I’m certainly looking forward to the rest of the season!