Archive for May, 2018

Glamorgan v. Middlesex

Posted in Cardiff, Cricket with tags , , , , on May 23, 2018 by telescoper

I took today off on annual leave (as I have to use all my allowance before I depart my job at Cardiff University). My intention was to make the best of the good weather to watch some cricket.

And so it came to pass that this morning I wandered down to Sophia Gardens for the start of the Royal London One-Day Cup (50-over) match between Glamorgan and Middlesex. It also came to pass that about fifteen minutes later I wandered back home again. I hadn’t checked the start time, which was actually 2pm…

The later start screwed up my plans as I had something to do in the evening but I thought I’d at least watch the first team bat (which turned out to be Middlesex).

(I’m not sure what caused the weird stripes on the picture.. .)

It was a lovely afternoon for cricket, and Middlesex got off to a good start in excellent batting conditions. Gradually though Glamorgan’s bowlers established some measure of control. After a mini-collapse of three wickets in three overs (to Ingram’s legspin) it looked like Middlesex might not make 300 (which seems to be the par score in this competition). Unfortunately for Glamorgan, however, de Lange and Wagg were expensive at the death and a flurry of boundaries took Middlesex to 304 for 6 off their 50 overs.

At that point I left Sophia Gardens to get ready to go out.

I’ve just got back to discover that Glamorgan lost by just 2 runs, ending on 302 for 9. It must have been a tense finish, and was a good game overall, but Glamorgan have now lost all three games they have played in this competition..

Is Dark Matter a Superfluid?

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on May 22, 2018 by telescoper

In between marking exams and project reports I’ve been doing a little bit of reading in preparation for a talk that I’m due to give next week, which prompted me to share this talk by Justin Khoury of the University of Pennsylvania, which is about framework that unifies the claimed success of Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) on galactic scales with the that of the standard ΛCDM model on cosmological scales. This is achieved through the physics of superfluidity. The dark matter and MOND components have a common origin, representing different phases of a single underlying substance. In galaxies, dark matter thermalizes and condenses to form a superfluid phase. The superfluid phonons couple to baryonic matter particles and mediate a MOND-like force. This framework naturally distinguishes between galaxies (where MOND is successful) and galaxy clusters (where MOND is not): dark matter has a higher temperature in clusters, and hence is in a mixture of superfluid and normal phase. The rich and well-studied physics of superfluidity leads to a number of observational signatures, discussed in the talk.

The idea that dark matter might be in the form of a superfluid is not new (see e.g. this paper) but there has been a recent surge of interest driven largely by Khoury and collaborators. If you want to find out more, can find a review paper about this model here.

From Maynooth to Cardiff

Posted in Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , on May 21, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am in Dublin Airport, waiting for my flight back to Cardiff. It’s been a nice weekend in Ireland, with good weather and lots to do in and around Maynooth. In the course of my perambulations on Saturday I came across a group of people campaigning to Repeal the Eighth Amendment. I A referendum on that issue takes place on Friday this week (25th). I bought a badge from them, which I’m happy to wear in solidarity:

There are lots of posters around supporting supporting one or other side in the campaign. It’s very noticeable that the `Yes’ ones seem to be getting torn down quite regularly. It’s also noticeable that the `No’ ones are frequently rather crude and sometimes offensive. That’s a shame because there is a serious ethical issue at stake, and a grown-up debate is important. Still, past experience suggests that referendums and grown-up debates don’t necessarily go together.

I won’t be in Ireland for the vote, but I hope the ‘yes’ campaign succeeds in removing what I think is a daft piece of law. If it fails then it won’t stop Irish women having terminations, it will just mean that the continue to have to travel abroad (if they can afford to do so) or take terrible risks have an illegal abortion at home (if they can’t) . For me, a vote for `No’ is therefore just a vote for hypocrisy.

Incidentally, a letter arrived at my Cardiff residence a few days ago from the Human Resources Department at Cardiff University, acknowledging my resignation (which I handed in about 6 weeks ago). I noticed that the letter contains the sentence `We have sent this letter to the home address we have on record for you. If this address is incorrect please contact us..’. Hmmm. If the letter had gone to the wrong address how would I know?

Anyway, I’ll be back in Cardiff for the next week, with another set of exams to mark in a few days, then back to Maynooth. And now it’s time to go to the gate.

On Off Minor

Posted in Jazz with tags , , , , on May 19, 2018 by telescoper

One of the contributors to the `Out Thinkers’ event I went to a couple of weeks ago, Emer Maguire, talked about science and music. During the course of her presentation she mentioned one of the most common sets of chord changes in pop music, the I-V-vi-IV progression. In the key of C major, the chords of this progression would be C, G, Am and F. You will for example find this progression comes up often in the songs of Ed Sheeran (whoever that is).

These four chords include those based on the tonic (I), the dominant (V) and the sub-dominant (IV) – i.e. the three chords of the basic blues progression – as well as the relative minor (vi). The relative minor for a major key is a key with exactly the same notes (i.e. the same sharps and flats) in it, but with a different tonic. With these four chords (shuffled in various ways) you can reproduce the harmonies of a very large fraction of the modern pop repertoire. It’s a comfortable and pleasant harmonic progression, but to my ears it sounds a bit bland and uninteresting.

These thoughts came into my head the other night when I was listening to an album of music by Thelonious Monk. One of my `hobbies’ is to try to figure out what’s going on underneath the music that I listen to, especially jazz. I can’t really play the piano, but I have an electronic keyboard which I play around on while trying to figure out what chord progressions are being used. I usually make a lot of terrible mistakes fumbling around in this way, so my neighbours and I are grateful that I use headphones rather than playing out loud!

I haven’t done a detailed statistical study, but I would guess that the most common chord progression in jazz might well be ii-V-I, a sequence that resolves onto the tonic through a cadence of fifths. I think one of the things some people dislike about modern jazz is that many of the chord progressions eschew this resolution which can make the music rather unsettling or, to put it another way, interesting.

Here’s a great example of a Thelonious Monk composition that throws away the rule book and as a result creates a unique atmosphere; it’s called Off Minor and it’s one of my absolute favourite Monk tunes, recorded for Blue Note in 1947:

The composition follows the standard 32 bar format of AABA; the A section ends with a strange D sharp chord extended with a flattened 9th which clashes with a B in the piano melody. This ending is quite a shock given the more conventional changes that precede it.

But it’s the B section (the bridge) where it gets really fascinating. The first bar starts on D-flat, moves up to D, and then goes into a series of unresolved ii-V changes beginning in B-flat. That’s not particularly weird in itself, but these changes don’t take place in the conventional way (one each bar): the first does, but the second is over two bars; and the third over four bars. Moreover, after all these changes the bridge ends on an unresolved D chord. It’s the fact that each set of eight bars ends in mid-air that provides this piece with its compelling  sense of forward motion.

There’s much more to it than just the chords, of course. There are Monk’s unique voicings and playful use of time as he states the melody, and then there’s his improvised solo, which I think is one of his very best, especially in the first chorus as he sets out like a brave explorer to chart a path through this curious harmonic landscape..

Ed Sheeran, eat your heart out!

Citation Analysis of Scientific Categories

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , on May 18, 2018 by telescoper

I stumbled across an interesting paper the other day with the title Citation Analysis of Scientific Categories. The title isn’t really accurate because not all the 231 categories covered by the analysis are `scientific’: they include many topics in the arts and humanities too. Anyway, the abstract is here:

Databases catalogue the corpus of research literature into scientific categories and report classes of bibliometric data such as the number of citations to articles, the number of authors, journals, funding agencies, institutes, references, etc. The number of articles and citations in a category are gauges of productivity and scientific impact but a quantitative basis to compare researchers between categories is limited. Here, we compile a list of bibliometric indicators for 236 science categories and citation rates of the 500 most cited articles of each category. The number of citations per paper vary by several orders of magnitude and are highest in multidisciplinary sciences, general internal medicine, and biochemistry and lowest in literature, poetry, and dance. A regression model demonstrates that citation rates to the top articles in each category increase with the square root of the number of articles in a category and decrease proportionately with the age of the references: articles in categories that cite recent research are also cited more frequently. The citation rate correlates positively with the number of funding agencies that finance the research. The category h-index correlates with the average number of cites to the top 500 ranked articles of each category (R2 = 0.997). Furthermore, only a few journals publish the top 500 cited articles in each category: four journals publish 60% (σ = ±20%) of these and ten publish 81% (σ = ±15%).

The paper is open access (I think) and you can find the whole thing here.

I had a discussion over lunch today with a couple of colleagues here in Maynooth about using citations. I think we agreed that citation analysis does convey some information about the impact of a person’s research but that information is rather limited. One of the difficulties is that publication rates and citation activity are very discipline-dependent so one can’t easily compare individuals in different areas. The paper here is interesting because it presents an interesting table showing how various statistical citation measures vary across fields and sub-fields;  physics is broken down into a number of distinct areas (e.g. Astronomy & Astrophysics, Particle Physics, Condensed Matter and Nuclear Physics) across which there is considerable variation. How to best to use this information is still not clear..

 

 

When Log Tables aren’t Log Tables

Posted in Education, mathematics, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on May 17, 2018 by telescoper

Every now and then – actually more frequently than that – I reveal myself in Ireland as an ignorant foreigner. The other day some students were going through a past examination paper (from 2014) and I was surprised to see that the front cover (above) mentioned  `log tables’.

Now I’m old enough to remember using tables of logarithms (and other mathematical tables  of such things as square roots and trigonometric functions, in the form of lists of numbers) extensively at school. These were provided in this book of four-figure tables (which can now buy for 1p on Amazon, plus p&p).

As a historical note I’ll point out that I was in the first year at my school that progressed to calculators rather than slide rules (in the third year) so I was never taught how to use the former. My set of four-figure tables which was so heavily used that it was falling to bits anyway, never got much use after that and I threw it out when I went to university despite the fact that I’m a notorious hoarder.

Anyway, assuming that the mention of `log tables’ was a relic of many years past, I said to the group of students going through the old examination paper that it seemed somewhat anachronistic. I was promptly corrected, and told that `log tables’ are in regular use in schools and colleges throughout Ireland, but that the term is a shorthand for a booklet containing a general collection of mathematical formulae, scientific data and other bits of stuff that might come in useful to students; for an example appropriate to the Irish Leaving Certificate, see here. One thing that they don’t contain is a table of logarithms…

Students in Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University are also given a formula booklet for use during examinations. I don’t remember having access to such a thing as an undergraduate, but I don’t object to it. It seems to me that an examination shouldn’t be a memory test, and giving students the basic formulae as a starting point if anything allows the examiner to concentrate on testing what matters much more, i.e. the ability to formulate and solve a problem. The greatest challenge of science education at University level is, in my opinion, convincing students that their brain is much more than a memory device…

International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia & Biphobia

Posted in History, LGBT with tags , , , , on May 17, 2018 by telescoper

Today is May 17th, which means that it is International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia. If you’re wondering why May 17th was chosen, it’s to commemorate May 17th 1990, which is when the World Health Organisation removed homosexuality from its list of “mental illnesses”.


Please remember at although attitudes in the UK are much more enlightened than they were only a few years ago, homophobic violence still happens with distressing frequency and in over 70 countries around the world being gay is still a criminal offence. Moreover, the rights we have won over the past 50 years could so easily be lost.

 

The theme for this year is “Alliances for Solidarity” so, even if you don’t identify yourself as LGBT+, then this should still be an important day for you. Here, for example, is a handy guide produced by Pride in STEM on how to be an ally:

The Absence, by R.S. Thomas

Posted in Poetry with tags , on May 16, 2018 by telescoper

It is this great absence
that is like a presence, that compels
me to address it without hope
of a reply. It is a room I enter

from which someone has just
gone, the vestibule for the arrival
of one who has not yet come.
I modernise the anachronism

of my language, but he is no more here
than before. Genes and molecules
have no more power to call
him up than the incense of the Hebrews

at their altars. My equations fail
as my words do. What resources have I
other than the emptiness without him of my whole
being, a vacuum he may not abhor?

by R.S. Thomas (1913-2000)

Funding Basic Research in Ireland

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on May 15, 2018 by telescoper

I received an email the other day about a scheme run by Science Foundation Ireland. Among other things, the Technology Innovation Development Award is intended (among other things)

… enables researchers to demonstrate the technical feasibility of an applied research project directed toward the development of a new or innovative technology, product, process or service that has potential for further commercial development.

The thrust of this scheme is pretty typical of funding calls in Ireland, and it spurred me to go on a mini-rant.

It’s quite clear to me since arriving in Ireland that funding for basic research – especially in the sciences – is extremely poor. This is largely because of a high-level report published in 2012. This identified 14 priority areas of research that are most likely to give demonstrable economic and societal return, and where Ireland should focus the majority of competitive funding. Four criteria were used in selecting the 14 priority areas for future, competitively-awarded investment for economic objectives:

  1. the area is associated with a large global market or markets in which Irish-based enterprises already compete or can realistically compete;
  2.  publicly performed R&D in Ireland is required to exploit the area and will complement private sector research and innovation in Ireland;
  3.  Ireland has built or is building (objectively measured) strengths in research disciplines relevant to the area; and,
  4. the area represents an appropriate approach to a recognised national challenge and/or a global challenge to which Ireland should respond.

The `vast majority’ of SFI’s funding is directed towards the 14 areas so defined, leaving virtually nothing for anything else, an outcome which has dire implications for `blue skies’ research.

I think this is a deeply misguided short-term policy, which will have a strongly negative effect on science in Ireland in the medium to long term, especially because Ireland spends so little of its GDP on research in the first place.  On top of that it will mean that Ireland will miss out on a golden opportunity to capitalise on Brexit by encouraging European scientists disaffected by the hostile environment that has been created in Britain by its government’s xenophobic policies to relocate to Ireland. There’s simply no point in trying to persuade world-leading researchers to come to Ireland if insufficient funds are available to enable them to establish here; the politicians’ welcoming platitudes will never be enough.

As the Irish economy grows, I hope the Irish government can be persuaded to reverse this situation by investing more in basic research and being more pro-active about reaping the Brexit dividend. Perhaps now that I live here I can play some sort of a role in campaigning for that?

EXPLANATORY NOTE: By `Brexit dividen’, I mean the real dividend, i.e. that which will be experienced by EU countries after Britain gives up all the collaborations, trading opportunities and inward investment that it currently enjoys by virtue of its EU membership.

In the meantime I thought I’d fire an opening salvo by re-iterating a line of thought I had some time ago in the hope that it will provoke a bit of debate.

A while ago, in response to a funding crisis in the UK, I wrote  about using taxpayer’s money to fund research in universities:

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research. You know, science.

A similar thing was said in in the Times Higher, in a piece about the (then) new President of the Royal Astronomical Society:

Notwithstanding the Royal Academy of Engineering’s “very unfortunate” recent submission to the government spending review – which argued that the need to rebalance the UK economy required public spending to be concentrated on applied science – Professor Davies is confident he can make a good case for spending on astrophysics to be protected.

Research with market potential can already access funding from venture capitalists, he argued, while cautioning the government against attempting to predict the economic impact of different subjects.

This is pretty much the opposite of what Irish government thinks. It wants to concentrate public funds in projects that  can demonstrate immediate commercial potential. Taxpayer’s money used in this way ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs if the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t,  the grant has effectively been wasted.

My proposal, therefore, is to phase out research grants for groups that want to concentrate on commercially motivated research and replace them with research loans. If the claims they make to secure the advance are justified, they should have no problem repaying it  from the profits they make from patent income or other forms of exploitation. If not, then they will have to pay back the loan from their own funds (as well as being exposed as bullshit merchants). In the current economic situation the loans could be made at very low interest rates and still save a huge amount of the current research budget for higher education. Indeed after a few years – suggest the loans should be repayable in 3-5 years, it would be self-financing. I think a large fraction of research in the applied sciences and engineering should be funded in this way.

The money saved by replacing grants  to commercially driven research groups with loans could be re-invested in those areas where public investment is really needed, such as pure science and medicine. Here grants are needed because the motivation for the research is different. Much of it does, in fact, lead to commercial spin-offs, but that is accidental and likely to appear only in the very long term. The real motivation of doing this kind of research is to enrich the knowledge base of the UK and the world in general.

In other words, it’s for the public good.  Remember that?

Most of you probably think that this is a crazy idea, and if you do please feel free to tell me so via the comments box.

 

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week Again

Posted in Mental Health with tags , , on May 14, 2018 by telescoper

image

This year the focus is on stress. Research has shown that two thirds of us experience a mental health problem in our lifetimes, and stress is a key factor in this. By tackling stress, we can go a long way to tackle mental health problems such as anxiety and depression, and, in some instances, self-harm and suicide.

For further information about how we can tackle stress and help improve our mental health see the Mental Health Awareness Week website.