Archive for January, 2018

The Future is Unpredictable

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , on January 31, 2018 by telescoper

I decided to take the early morning flight from Cardiff to Dublin today as I have quite a few things to prepare before my first lecture at Maynooth, which is at 9am. I actually got up at 4am and took the 5.10am bus to the airport so that I would arrive in time to have a coffee and a bacon sandwich before the 6.55am flight. Everything went to plan apart from the inclement weather, which resulted in me getting soaked on the way to the bus stop. The plane struggled against a strong headwind, taking 70 minutes to get to Dublin instead of the usual 40, and there was quite a lot of turbulence en route but we arrived on time in Dublin in time for my bus to Maynooth. It was freezing cold this morning, and as I arrived in Maynooth it started snowing but has now stopped.

While waiting in the airport I checked Facebook, which reminded me that it was exactly five years ago today that I left Cardiff to take up the job of Head of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex. One of my last acts was to sign the work of art I left on the whiteboard in my old office.

The initial term of my appointment at the University of Sussex was 5 years, which would have been finishing today had I stayed there. If somebody had told me then that within five years I would have left Sussex, returned to Cardiff temporarily, and be about to move permanently to Ireland it would have seemed most implausible. More importantly, way back then I had no plans to grow a beard!

It just goes to show that Niels Bohr was right when he stated that `Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’….

..on the other hand, when I got back to Maynooth I found that my new Public Services Card had arrived, which seems to make a definite prediction of the date of my ultimate demise:

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Dictionary Distribution Day

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Crosswords, Uncategorized on January 30, 2018 by telescoper

This set of dictionaries arrived last week while I was in Maynooth.

These – along with £15 in book tokens which arrived a while ago – form the prize for the Everyman Crossword competition in the Observer I won earlier this month.

Fortunately, my friendly neighbours accepted delivery of the books while I was out and I collected the parcel from them last night after work. I took them into work today and distributed them gratis to deserving members of the School of Physics & Astronomy before my first Physics of the Early Universe lecture this morning. I’ve got plenty of dictionaries already, you see.

I wonder if I’ll win any more before I move to Ireland?

Hirsute cosmologist Peter Coles beards broadcaster James O’Brien to win Beard of Winter vote

Posted in Beards, The Universe and Stuff on January 30, 2018 by telescoper

Wow. Fame at last!

 

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Hirsute cosmologist Peter Coles beards broadcaster James O’Brien to win Beard of Winter vote

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has said that leading hirsute cosmologist Peter Coles has bearded broadcaster James O’Brien to win the Beard of Winter poll.

Mr Coles, of Cardiff University and Maynooth University in Ireland was previously a contender for Beard of the Year in 2014.

The Beard of Winter is the first of four seasonal awards that lead to the Beard of the Year Award in December 2018.

It focuses both on fuller organic beards, suitable for winter weather but also on beards that have made an early New Year impact in the public eye.

BLF Organiser Keith Flett said, Peter Coles has one of the most distinguished of scientific beards. Clearly his victory was in the stars but…

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The IKEA Universe

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 29, 2018 by telescoper

I heard yesterday the sad news of Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of Swedish furniture chain IKEA.  People can be very snobbish about IKEA, but its emphasis on affordable design has been a boon for people on low incomes for many years. When I was an impoverished postdoc living in London I used it a lot, especially their Billy bookcases. I also have a very sturdy Omar in my bedroom…

I remember years ago  that while shopping in the IKEA at Neasden I discovered that they were running a competition, for which entrants had to complete the sentence:

I shop at IKEA because…

My entry completed it thus:

I shop at IKEA because it’s as cheap as fuck.

I didn’t win.

But I digress. Not many people are aware that IKEA also furnishes  important insights into modern cosmology, so I’ll try to explain here. I’ve blogged before about the current state of cosmology, but it’s probably a good idea to give a quick reminder before going any further. We have a standard cosmological model, known as the concordance cosmology, which accounts for most relevant observations in a pretty convincing way and is based on the idea that the Universe began with a Big Bang.  However, there are a few things about this model that are curious, to say the least.

First, there is the spatial geometry of the Universe. According to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, universes come in three basic shapes: closed, open and flat. These are illustrated to the right. The flat space has “normal” geometry in which the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. In a closed space the sum of the angles is greater than 180 degrees, and  in an open space it is less. Of course the space we live in is three-dimensional but the pictures show two-dimensional surfaces.

But you get the idea.

The point is that the flat space is very special. The two curved spaces are much more general because they can be described by a parameter called their curvature which could in principle take any value (either positive for a closed space, or negative for an open space). In other words the sphere at the top could have any radius from very small (large curvature) to very large (small curvature). Likewise with the “saddle” representing an open space. The flat space must have exactly zero curvature. There are many ways to be curved, but only one way to be flat.

Yet, as near as dammit, our Universe appears to be flat. So why, with all the other options theoretically available to it, did the Universe decide to choose the most special one, which also happens in my opinion to be also the most boring?

Then there is the way the Universe is put together. In order to be flat there must be an exact balance between the energy contained in the expansion of the Universe (positive kinetic energy) and the energy involved in the gravitational interactions between everything in it (negative potential energy). In general relativity, you see, the curvature relates to the total amount of energy.

On the left you can see the breakdown of the various components involved in the standard model with the whole pie representing a flat Universe. You see there’s a vary strange mixture dominated by dark energy (which we don’t understand) and dark matter (which we don’t understand). The bit we understand a little bit better (because we can sometimes see it directly) is only 5% of the whole thing. The proportions do look very peculiar.

And then finally, there is the issue that I have ablogged about (here and there) previously, which is why the Universe appears to be a bit lop-sided and asymmetrical when we’d like it to be a bit more aesthetically pleasing.

All these curiosities are naturally accounted for in my New Theory of the Universe, which asserts that the Divine Creator actually bought  the entire Cosmos  in IKEA.

This hypothesis immediately explains why the Universe is flat. Absolutely everything in IKEA comes in flat packs. Curvature is not allowed.

But this is not the only success of my theory. When God got home He obviously opened the flat pack, found the instructions and read the dreaded words “EASY SELF-ASSEMBLY”. Even the omnipotent would struggle to follow the bizarre set of cartoons and diagrams that accompany even the simplest IKEA furniture. The result is therefore predictable: strange pieces that don’t seem to fit together, bits left over whose purpose is not at all clear, and an overall appearance that is not at all like one would have expected.

It’s clear  where the lop-sidedness comes in too. Probably some of the parts were left out so the whole thing isn’t  held together properly and is probably completely unstable. This sort of thing happens all the time with IKEA stuff. And why is it you can never find the right size Allen Key to sort it out?

So there you have it. My new Theory of the Universe. Some details need to be worked out, but it is as good an explanation of these issues as I have heard. I claim my Nobel Prize.

If anything will ever get me another trip to Sweden, this will…

Transitional Arrangements

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on January 27, 2018 by telescoper

So I’m here in Dublin airport again, waiting for a flight back to Cardiff. I woke up early this morning so decided to get the 6am Hopper Bus from Maynooth instead of the usual 7am one. There was no traffic and it took only 40 minutes so I’ve had time to have a coffee and a bacon sandwich, as well as finishing the FT prize crossword.

Anyway, teaching term starts next week in both Cardiff and Maynooth so it promises to be quite a hectic period. I’ll be teaching Physics of the Early Universe in Cardiff on Tuesdays and Computational Physics in Maynooth on Thursdays. I volunteered for the latter course primarily to brush up my Python skills, which are distinctly rusty.

At least I won’t have the problem that I had in Nottingham when I was teaching two modules in the same Semester, Cosmology and Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics, both for 3rd year students (so mostly the same students) and both timetabled in the same room. I remember one day turning up and starting a lecture on weak nuclear interactions only to realise I was meant to be doing something about the propagation of photons in an expanding universe.

The midweek to and fro between Wales and Ireland will continue until March where there is a divergence of arrangements for the Easter break. My calculations indicate that happens after 7 lectures  and therefore 7 midweek flights. Should be fun. At least I’m racking up the Avios…

 

 

 

University Pension Differences

Posted in Education, Finance, Maynooth with tags , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2018 by telescoper

Following a ballot of members of the University and College Union (UCU), the UK university sector is gearing up for strike action over proposed changes to the USS pension scheme. Unless the dispute is resolved in the meantime (which I think is highly unlikely) the first strike lasting two days will place on 22nd and 23rd February. Thereafter strikes will escalate to cover three days, four days and five days in subsequent weeks.  I’ll actually be in Maynooth for the first 48 hour block so won’t have to worry about crossing a picket line initially, but will have to later if it drags on. It looks set to be a bitter dispute which will not be easily resolved.

When I joined USS (in 1988) it was a simple `Final Salary Scheme’. Both employer and employee contributed and the benefits accrued were an index-linked pension of 1/80 of the final salary for each year of contributions and a (tax-free) lump sum of 3/80 for each year of contributions. I joined at age 25 so I expected to accrue 40 years of pension if I retired at 65, namely a pension of half my final year’s salary and a lump sum of three-halves. It looked a good deal and was a significant factor mitigating the relatively low starting salary for academics in those days.

Over the years it became apparent that this scheme is actuarially unsound because (a) people are living longer, increasing the scheme’s liability and (b) investment growth achieved by the USS fund managers has decreased, with a negative impact on asset growth. Moreover, the USS fund is not underwritten by the government, so if it collapses completely members could be left with no benefits at all.

The USS Final Salary scheme was closed to new entrants some years ago and replaced by a less generous defined benefit scheme. A couple of years ago it was closed to existing members too, though the benefits accrued are retained; I will now only be able to get 28/80 of my final salary from that scheme when I actually retire. The scheme was replaced by a hybrid of an even less generous defined benefit scheme and a defined contribution scheme (where the pension benefit is dependent on the fund valuation at retirement, as most private pensions). Now the proposal is to remove the defined benefit component entirely. The loss of pension benefits will be substantial.

I don’t see any easy settlement of this dispute so I’m glad that it won’t affect me very much. I’ll be leaving the UK Higher Education system this summer and relocating to Ireland. Quite a few people have asked me how the pension scheme works here so I thought I’d point out the differences.

The first thing to say is as a professor in the National University of Ireland at Maynooth I am treated as a public servant so my future pension benefits here are covered by the Single Public Service Pension scheme. This resembles the final salary scheme that USS used to be, but with the important difference is that it is integrated with the State Pension to which everyone is entitled if they pay social insurance contributions. This – called the SPC – is similar to the old State Earnings-Related Pension Scheme (SERPS). Since public employees benefit from this as well as the public service pension scheme, the accrual rate in the latter is lower than the old USS scheme – just 0.58% per year – on salaries up to €45,000. For salaries above this figure the amount above the  limit generates an accrual rate 0f 1/80, just as the USS version. There is also a lump sum which accrues at 3.75% per annum, the same as the USS scheme.

In summary, then, the big difference is that in Ireland the public service pension is integrated with the state pension, whereas in the UK the latter is entirely separate. It’s also the case that in Ireland the pension is guaranteed by the government (which, of course, can change the rules…)

In my opinion the pension scheme for University staff in Ireland is significantly better value than the diminishing returns provided by the USS scheme, yet another reason why I made the decision to move here.

 

A Man’s a Man for a’ that – Robert Burns

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on January 25, 2018 by telescoper

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

by Robert Burns (1759-1796)