Archive for October, 2017

The Zurich Letters

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on October 31, 2017 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post following up my previous piece on the Bullying Scandal at ETH Zurich.

As pointed out in a comment on that post, a letter of support for one of the named Professors (Marcella Carollo) has been signed by a number of astronomers, including some prominent senior professors. That letter can be found here (PDF).

A version of that letter which has been annotated by Chris Lintott to draw attention to some of its shortcomings can be found here. I won’t add much to Chris’s comments, but will mention that a dropout rate of 30% of students funded by the UK  Science and Technology Facilities Council would lead to financial penalties on the institution responsible. Moreover, ETH Zurich is a prestigious institution with a highly selective admissions policy for postgraduate students and a high level of funding. It is not unreasonable to expect a high completion rate under these circumstances.

Other than that, the two main messages of the first letter seem to be (a) `some people did well so it must all be OK’ and (b) `the ends justify the means’. I can’t agree with either of these points. Reaction I have seen on social media to the letter have been overwhelmingly negative, to the extent that Prof. Bryan Gaensler has drafted an alternative letter, in support of the ETH Researchers, and is collecting signatures. You can find that letter here, where you can also find a list of more than 300 nearly 700 signatories across all walks of astronomical life. You can add your name to this letter at any time until 2359 UTC on Wednesday November 1st, after which the letter and list of signatories will then be delivered to the researchers affected by this sorry affair.

P.S. I’ll just mention that as well as attracting a very large number of visitors (hopefully not all of them lawyers), my original post on this matter is the first I have written to generate over a hundred comments. The previous record was 98.

UPDATE: There’s an item about the second letter here.

Dark Matter Day

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 31, 2017 by telescoper

As a welcome alternative to the tedium of Hallowe’en (which I usually post about in this fashion), I notice that today (31st October 2017) has been officially designated Dark Matter Day. I would have sent some appropriate greetings cards but I couldn’t find any in the shops…

All of which gives me the excuse to post this nice video which shows (among other things) how dark matter plays a role in the formation of galaxies:

P.S. Lest we forget, today is also the 500th anniversary of the day that Martin Luther knocked on the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg and said `Trick or Theses?’ (Is this right? Ed.)

Night of the Octopodes

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 30, 2017 by telescoper

They have arrived! All hail our Octopus overlords!

This is not normal: universities in the news

Posted in Education, Politics on October 30, 2017 by telescoper

A reaction to recent news coverage of UK universities, among other things.

I particularly liked “the degraded language of TEF, REF and KEF, which confuses bureaucracy with vision”. Well said.


It is not normal for universities to occupy the front pages of national newspapers. Granted, at any time there is a vital, occasionally tense, dialogue between universities and the nations in which they are situated. The line between ideals of academic freedom on the one hand, and the realities of finances and state oversight on the other hand, is notoriously fuzzy. The extent to which universities reflect or represent their nations is always a potential point of controversy.

But these are not normal times. Over the past few months, debate has swirled frenetically around questions including university funding, whether we have too many universities, what our top managers are paid, free speech on campus, how we select our students, and what we teach. We appear now to be at the point where even what academics think might be a point for national outrage.

It seems to me that much of…

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The Joy of Viz

Posted in Uncategorized on October 29, 2017 by telescoper

This letter from Viz Comic tickled my fancy, so I thought I’d share it here…

National STFC Data-Intensive Science Launch Event

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by telescoper

It’s been a very busy week here in Cardiff, as we have been hosting a National Event to launch the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s new Centres for Doctoral Training in Data-Intensive Science. There are eight new CDTs involving 19 institutions across the country (including the local one that involved the Universities of Cardiff, Bristol and Swansea). We were delighted to be chosen to host this event, which has had a tremendous buzz about it, as 120 new PhD students met with academics from all the CDTs, STFC staff, and representatives of industry partners, for a mixture of training and networking activities. I took part in a panel discussion this morning about careers, which was very interesting.

Last night we had a dinner at the Mercure Hotel in Cardiff (where the Real Madrid team stayed just before this summer’s UEFA Champions League Final in Cardiff). The dinner was preceded by a welcome from Professor Karen Holford (Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University), a talk by Brian Bowsher (Chief Executive of STFC) and Prof. Patrick Sutton of the Gravitional Physics group at Cardiff who gave an outstanding talk about the latest developments in gravitational waves. There was then a `showcase’ event to allow students and staff to talk about their work over a few drinks.

Here are some pictures of yesterday’s activities.

Prof. Karen Holford giving her welcome speech.

Dr Bian Bowsher, STFC Chief Executive

I noticed in Dr Bowsher’s talk that STFC has apparently moved the Boulby Mine from North Yorkshire (near Whitby) to Northumberland:

STFC sites (some of them in the correct geographical location).

Professor Mark Walport was unable to attend the event in person but did at least appear on a slide about the new UK Research and Innovation entity, which formally comes into existence in April 2018!

Professor Sir Mark Walport

Patrick Sutton doing his gravitational waves talk…

The Showcase Event

Showcase Event

And here are some of the members of the team from STFC who did most of the organization for this very successful and enjoyable event.

Some members of the STFC team!

The event finishes this afternoon, after which I think I’ll have a lie down!

Update: there’s a Cardiff University News item about this here.

Feline Physics

Posted in Uncategorized on October 26, 2017 by telescoper

Consider the stability of a spherical cat of mass M and radius R using tree-level perturbation theory.

From the House of the Dead in Southampton

Posted in Biographical, Opera with tags , , , , , on October 25, 2017 by telescoper

It has been very hectic around here since I got back from India last week, so I’ve only just found time to do a quick review of Welsh National Opera’s production of From the House of the Dead which I saw last Friday at the Mayflower Theatre in Southampton. I was away for the two performances of this Opera in Cardiff earlier this month and when I mentioned to a couple of friends of mine from London that I was hoping to catch it while it was on tour we decided to compare diaries and see if there was any way we could go together. And so it came to pass that we all ended up in Southampton, me returning to Cardiff through Storm Brian the next day, and Joao and Kim flying off to Cape Verde for two weeks from Gatwick Airport.

Anyway, to the Opera. From the House of the Dead is by Leoš Janáček, and is based on the autobiographical novel of the same (or similar) name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. It is set in a Siberian prison, in one such establishment Dostoyevsky himself spent four years of his life. It’s a grim story that starts with the arrival of a nobleman, Goryanchikov, to start his sentence. He is stripped of his fine clothes, beaten and tortured, then joins the wretched ensemble of captives until he is unexpectedly released at the end of the Opera. In between the prisoners take turns to describe their life stories, holding on to the past as people do who perceive that they have no future. There is little plot other than this series of narratives apart from a quasi-comic interlude provided by an Easter `show’, in the form of a pantomime. The work is in three relatively short acts which, in this production, run together without an interval. The whole performance lasts about 90 minutes. The picture above, taken during a previous run of this production in Finland, conveys the look and feel of this revival of a production by David Pountney that was first performed in 1982.

From the House of the Dead was written in the last years of Janáček’s life and was not performed until two years after his death. It opens with a prelude that reminded me a lot of his superb String Quartet No. 2 (`Intimate Letters’), written around the same time (1928) but whereas that work is about the nature of love, this Opera is about loneliness, isolation and brutality. The musical score is very rich and varied, but the vocal lines rather constricted, as if to emphasise the sense of captivity. It’s also really an ensemble piece rather than one in which the principal vocalists stand out from the chorus. This works very well for Welsh National Opera, as the chorus of WNO is exceptional. The Orchestra, under the direction of Tomas Hanus (himself a native of Brno, where Janáček lived for much of his life), played superbly, bringing out the subtleties of the orchestration by adding contrasting notes of optimism and hope to the intense, unrelenting darkness.

In short it was well worth the trip to Southampton, even if it did take me five hours to get home via two trains and a rail replacement bus service. This production has deservedly been very positively reviewed in the national media and I strongly recommend you see it during one if its remaining dates, in Oxford, Birmingham, Bristol or Llandudno.

Physics of the EU – Revised Syllabus

Posted in Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 25, 2017 by telescoper

Yesterday, Tory MP Christopher Heaton-Harris wrote to all Vice-Chancellors of UK universities asking them to send him the names of professors teaching about “European affairs” together with links to relevant syllabuses and course materials. There has been an overwhelmingly negative response to this sinister request, which comes from an arch-Brexiteer apparently intent on thought control.

Not wishing to fall foul of the Brexit Police, I have updated my syllabus for next term and include it here so Mr McCarthy Heaton-Harris can read it:

I’m afraid that, for any further information and/or course materials relating to this module, Mr Heaton-Harris will have to register and pay the requisite fee which, thanks to his government is £9250.

P.S. I posted this slide on Twitter yesterday, and it got as close as any of my tweets have ever done to going viral (with over 800 retweets).

Strong constraints on cosmological gravity from GW170817 and GRB 170817A

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 24, 2017 by telescoper

One of the many interesting scientific results to emerge from last week’s announcement of a gravitational wave source (GW170817) with an electromagnetic counterpart (GRB 170817A) is the fact that it provides constraints on departures from Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. In particular the (lack of a) time delay between the arrival of the gravitational and electromagnetic signals can be used to rule out models that predict that gravitational waves and electromagnetic waves travel with different speeds. The fractional time delay associated with this source is constrained to be less than 10-17 which actually rules out many of the proposed alternatives to general relativity. Modifications of Einstein’s gravity have been proposed for a number of reasons, including the desire to explain the dynamics of the expanding Universe without the need for Dark Energy or Dark Matter (or other exotica), but many of these are now effectively dead.

Anyway, I bookmarked a nice paper about this last week while I was in India but forgot to post it then, so if you’re interested in reading more about this have a look at this arXiv paper by Baker et al., which has the following abstract:

The detection of an electromagnetic counterpart (GRB 170817A) to the gravitational wave signal (GW170817) from the merger of two neutron stars opens a completely new arena for testing theories of gravity. We show that this measurement allows us to place stringent constraints on general scalar-tensor and vector-tensor theories, while allowing us to place an independent bound on the graviton mass in bimetric theories of gravity. These constraints severely reduce the viable range of cosmological models that have been proposed as alternatives to general relativistic cosmology.