Archive for May, 2017

The Bright Field, by R.S. Thomas

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on May 31, 2017 by telescoper

I heard this recording of R.S. Thomas reading one of his most famous poems on Private Passions on BBC Radio 3 this Sunday. It was only later that I realised that although I’ve posted quite a few poems by R.S. Thomas over the years, I’ve never posted this one so I’m correcting that omission now. The poem is called The Bright Field:

I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Here is R.S. Thomas himself reading it. The comments made about this reading on the radio programme weren’t entirely complimentary, but I rather like it. Notice, however, that in the spoken version he adds a `the’ between `had’ and `treasure’, which isn’t there in my printed copy of the poem.

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Module Evaluation

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on May 31, 2017 by telescoper

It’s always with a measure of trepidation that I look at the feedback that students give on a module that I’ve been teaching, and this nervousness is considerably enhanced when it’s the first time I’ve lectured that material. This morning I grasped the nettle and clicked on the link to take me to my questionnaire results for my module Physics of the Early Universe. I was relieved that it was all fairly positive.

In the old days these things were done on paper, which meant quite a big job collecting and collating the results. Nowadays it’s all done online, which means not receiving any drawings or other artistic contributions that some students were wont to scribble on the questionnaires. Past experience has been that the response rate is lower for on-line surveys, but the response rate I got this time was pretty high – over 80%. Perhaps students are getting more accustomed to doing everything on line?

I never find the numerical scores particularly useful as one has no idea how to calibrate them, but the textual comments made by students are often interesting and helpful. They’re all anonymous, of course, to encourage students to be frank.

One thing that clearly went down very well was the use of Cardiff’s new lecture-capture system (called Panopto), which allows the lecturer to record everything – powerpoint, data visualizer, whiteboard and live action – for posterity. I recorded all my lectures and exercise classes in toto and put them up on our Virtual Learning Environment (called Learning Central) for the students to view at their leisure. It’s a significantly more sophisticated and flexible lecture capture system than the one we used when I was at Sussex, and the questionnaire responses showed that the students really appreciated the availability of the recordings; a representative comment can be found below.

Not all my colleagues are keen on the idea of lecture capture, but I like it a lot and am very happy to do it with my own lectures. It does seem that some university staff are wary of this innovation, but opinion may be changing. Please let me know what you think via the poll thatr I’ve been running on this for a few years:

It’s always difficult when you give a new set of lectures judging the pace appropriately. I spent more time on introductory material than I should perhaps have done, and also – as a number of students made clear in the module evaluation – should have done some more worked examples. I’ll try do better next time, and I am very grateful to those who took the time to complete the survey pointing out how I might improve. I always take constructive criticism very seriously.

It is of course the negative comments that are the most helpful in a practical sense, but it is always nice to find comments like these:

The lecturer is very passionate about the subject and that really helps as you can ask any question and he’ll be able to answer it. Furthermore, his enthusiasm helps to keep you engaged. I also found it helpful that the lectures were recorded, so I could look over them while working on coursework.

Before you accuse me of doing so, I admit that I have cherry-picked one of the good ones to show myself in a good light.

I’m less sure how to interpret this one:

The lectures were incredible.

Anyway, the students on this module have now finished the exam and will be waiting for the results which come out in a couple of weeks. If any happen to be reading this blog then thanks for your comments and

Fake Authors in Physics

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on May 30, 2017 by telescoper

Back to work – and exam business – after the Bank Holiday weekend (during most of which I was a bit under the weather), I thought I’d try to get back into the swing of blogging with a brief post about fake authorship.

What provoked me to write this was a strange news item about a Caltech professor who apparently created a fictitious female collaborator called `Ursula C. T. Gamma’ and got her name added as author on scientific papers as well as official email lists on the Caltech website; she also appears in an acknowledgement:

Finally, we thank Ursula C. T. Gamma for continued inspiration.

The professor responsible for all this was none other than Christian Ott, whom I’ve mentioned in a blog post before, because he was placed on unpaid leave by Caltech for harassing two female colleagues.

I don’t know what Ott hoped to gain by inventing a female co-worker. Was it just for a joke, or was there some ulterior motive? I’m not going to speculate here.

If you’ll excuse a bit of frivolity this episode reminded me that a few years ago I toyed with the idea of adding my cat, Columbo, under the pseudonym `Felix Columbo’, as a co-author on a paper I was writing. That would have been for my own amusement – and also because I thought Felix Columbo was a cool name for a physicist, but in the end I didn’t do it largely because I heard about F.D.C. Willard:

The American physicist and mathematician Jack H. Hetherington, Michigan State University, in 1975 wanted to publish some of his research results in the field of low–temperature physics in the scientific journal Physical Review Letters. A colleague, to whom he had given his paper for review, pointed out that Hetherington had used the first person plural in his text, and that the journal would reject this form on submissions with a sole author. Rather than take the time to retype the article to use the singular tense, or to bring in a co-author, Hetherington decided to invent one.

The co-author he invented was his cat, whose name was Chester. The cat’s father was called Willard and the letters F.D.’ stand for `Felis Domesticus’ (the species name for a a house cat).

Other physicists have done similar things. For example, Nobel laureate Andre Geim has written a paper with a hamster as a co-author.

More famously, George Gamow added the name of Hans Bethe to a paper he was writing with his PhD student Ralph Alpher, simply so its authors would be Alpher, Bethe and Gamow. Bethe did subsequently work on the topic discussed in the paper – nucleosynthesis – but hadn’t significantly to the paper. It is reported that Alpher was upset by Gamow’s actions. The paper was published in the Physical Review in 1948 and is a classic in the field of physical cosmology.

As well as being an outstanding physicist, George Gamow was a very colourful and amusing fellow. I’m sure his decision to add Bethe to this paper was just meant as a bit of fun. Likewise with the cat and the hamster. These days, however, authorship of scientific papers is taken far more seriously than it was, as a means to assess research activity and distribute resources. You could argue that this emphasis on authorship is an unhealthy development, but nevertheless that’s the way things. A responsible senior scientist should know that. Adding a phoney author – even if intended as a joke – could well be construed by some institutions as a form of research misconduct.

And how are your real co-workers (especially students and postdocs) supposed to feel if you decide they haven’t contributed enough to merit authorship of a collaborative paper, when they see you adding names of people who don’t even exist?

A Black Rain Frog

Posted in Uncategorized on May 27, 2017 by telescoper

No time for a post today so here’s a picture of a Black Rain Frog…

Summertime – Albert Ayler

Posted in Jazz with tags , , on May 26, 2017 by telescoper

George Gershwin’s beautiful song Summertime has been recorded countless times in countless ways by countless artists, but if you’re expecting it to be performed as a restful lullaby, as it is normally played, you’ll probably be shocked. This version is a heartbreaking expression of pain and anguish performed by the great Albert Ayler, and it was recorded in Copenhagen in 1963.

P.S. The painting shown in the video is by Matisse….

The Sundial of Trevithick 

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 26, 2017 by telescoper

Since it’s a lovely sunny day in Cardiff – and already very warm – I thought I’d step outside the office of the Cardiff University Data Innovation Research Institute which is situated in the Trevithick Building and take a picture of our new sundial:

This flat sundial was installed by a company called Border Sundials and is designed very carefully to be as accurate as possible for the particular wall on which it is place. It’s also corrected for longitude.

However, I took the photograph at about 10.30am, and you’ll notice that it’s showing about 9.30. That’s because it hasn’t been corrected for British Summer Time so it’s offset by an hour. Moreover, a sundial always shows the local solar time rather than mean time which is shown on clocks. These differ because of (a) the inclination of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun relative to the equator and (b) the eccentricity of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which means that it does not move at a constant speed. The difference between mean time and solar time can be reconciled using the equation of time. The maximum correction is about 15 minutes, which is large enough to be seen on a sundial of this type. Often a graph of the equation of time is placed next to a sundial so one can do the correct oneself, but for some reason there isn’t one here.

The sundial adds quite a lot of interest to what otherwise is a featureless brick wall and we often notice people looking at it outside our office.

The Art of Jupiter

Posted in Art, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 25, 2017 by telescoper

This amazing closeup image is of the North polar region of Jupiter. It was taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. Here’s a wider view:


I think it will take scientists quite some time to figure out what is going on in all those complex vortex structures!

In the meantime, though, I think these picture and the others that have been released can be enjoyed as a work of art! As a matter of fact reminds me of van Gogh’s Starry Night...