Archive for June, 2018

Big News for Big Data in Cardiff

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , on June 20, 2018 by telescoper

I know I’m currently in Maynooth, but I am still employed part-time by Cardiff University, and specifically by the Data Innovation Research Institute there. When I started there a couple of years ago, I moved into a big empty office that looked like this:

Over the last two years the DIRI office has gradually filled up. It is now home to an Administrative Officer (Clare), two Research Software Engineers (Ian & Unai),  Ben and Owain from Supercomputing Wales,and the newest arrival, a Manager for the Centre for Doctoral Training in Data-Intensive Physics (Rosemary). That doesn’t include, myself, the Director of DIRI (Steve Fairhurst), DIRI Board member Bernard Schutz and a number of occasional users of various `hot desks’. And there’s another Research Software Engineer on the way.

Now the latest news is of a huge injection of cash (£3.5M) for a new Data Innovation Accelerator, funded by the Welsh Government and the European Regional Development Fund. The Welsh Government has joined forces with Cardiff University to develop the project, which has the aim of transferring data science and analytics knowledge from Cardiff University to Small to Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in Wales so they can develop and grow their businesses. The funding will enable researchers to work on collaborative projects with companies specialising in things like cyber security, advanced materials, energy and eco-innovation. For more information, see here.

Among other things this project will involve the recruitment of no less than eight data scientists to kick-start the project, which will probably launch in November 2018. With another eight people to be based in the Data Innovation Research Institute by the end of the year, the office promises to be a really crowded place. My departure next month will release one desk space, but it will still be a crush! That’s what you call being a victim of your own success.

Anyway, it’s exciting times for Data Science at Cardiff University and it has been nice to have played a small part in building up the DIRI activity over the last two years. I’m sure it will go on developing and expanding for a very long time indeed.

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Why the Universe is extremely overrated.

Posted in Television, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

A few weeks I read an article in Physics Today which prompted me to revise and resubmit an old post I cobbled together in response to the BBC television series Wonders of the Universe in which I argued that the title of that programme suggests that the Universe is wonder-ful, or even, in a word which has cropped up in the series a few times, `awesome’.  When you think about it the Universe is not really `awesome at all’. In fact it’s extremely overrated.

Take this thing, for example:

 

This is an example of a galaxy (the Andromeda Nebula, M31, to be precise). We live in a similar object. Of course it looks quite pretty on the surface but, when you look at it with a physicist’s eye, such a galaxy is really not as great as it’s cracked up to be, as I shall now explain.

We live in a relatively crowded part of our galaxy on a small planet orbiting a fairly insignificant star called the Sun. Now you’ve got me started on the Sun. I know it supplies the Earth with all its energy, but it does the job pretty badly, all things considered because the Sun only radiates a fraction of a milliwatt per kilogram. By comparison a human being radiates more than one watt per kilogram. Pound for pound, that’s more than a thousand times as much energy as a star.

So,  in reality, stars are bloated, wasteful, inefficient and not even slightly awesome. They’re only noticeable because they’re big. And we all know that size shouldn’t really matter. In short, stars are extremely overrated.

But even in what purports to be an interesting neighbourhood of our Galaxy, the nearest star is 4.5 light years from the Sun. To get that in perspective, imagine the Sun is the size of a golfball. On the same scale, where is the nearest star?

The answer to that will probably surprise you, as it does my students when I give this example in lectures. The answer is, in fact, on the order of a thousand kilometres away. That’s the distance from Cardiff to, say, Munich. What a dull landscape our Galaxy possesses. In between one little golf ball in Wales and another one in Germany there’s nothing of any interest at all, just a featureless incomprehensible void not worthy of the most perfunctory second thought.

So galaxies aren’t dazzlingly beautiful jewels of the heavens. They’re flimsy, insubstantial things more like the cheap tat you can find on QVC. What’s worse is that they’re also full of a grubby mixture of soot and dust. Indeed, some are so filthy that you can hardly see any stars at all. Somebody needs to give the Universe a good clean. I suppose you just can’t get the help these days.

And then to the Physics Today piece I mentioned at the start of this article. I quote:

Star formation is stupendously inefficient. Take the Milky Way. Our galaxy contains about a billion solar masses of fresh gas available to form stars—and yet it produces only one solar mass of new stars a year.

Hopeless! What a waste of space a galaxy is! As well as being oversized, vacuous and rather dirty, one is also pretty useless at making the very things it is supposed to be good at! What galaxies clearly need is some sort of a productivity drive or perhaps a complete redesign using more efficient technology.

So stars are overrated and galaxies are overrated, but surely the Universe as a whole is impressive?

No. Think about the Big Bang. Well, I don’t need to go on about that because I’ve already posted about it. Suffice to say that the Big Bang wasn’t anywhere near as Big as you’ve been led to believe: the volume was between about 115 and 120 decibels. Quite loud, to be sure, but many rock concerts are louder. To be honest it’s a bit of an anti-climax. If I’d been in charge I would have put on something much more spectacular.

In any case the Big Bang happened a very long time ago. Since then the Universe has been expanding, the space between galaxies getting emptier and emptier so there’s now less than one atom per cubic metre, and cooling down to the point where its temperature is lower than three degrees above absolute zero.

The Universe is a cold, desolate and very empty place, lit by a few feeble stars and warmed only by the fading glow of the heat left over from when it was all so much younger and more exciting. Here and there amid the cosmic void a few galaxies are dotted about, like cheap and rather tatty ornaments. It’s as if we inhabit a shabby downmarket retirement home, warmed only by the feeble radiation given off by a puny electric fire as we occupy ourselves as best we can until Armageddon comes.

In my opinion the Universe would have worked out better had it been entirely empty, instead of being contaminated with such detritus. I agree with Tennessee Williams:

BRICK: “Well, they say nature hates a vacuum, Big Daddy.
BIG DADDY: “That’s what they say, but sometimes I think that a vacuum is a hell of a lot better than some of the stuff that nature replaces it with.”

So no, the Universe isn’t wonderful. Not at all. In fact, it’s basically a bit rubbish. Again, it’s only superficially impressive because it’s quite large, and it doesn’t do to be impressed by things just because they are large. That would be vulgar.

Digression: I just remembered a story about a loudmouthed Texan who owned a big ranch and who was visiting the English countryside on holiday. Chatting to locals in the village pub he boasted that it took him several days to drive around his ranch. A farmer replied “Yes. I used to have a car like that.”

Ultimately, however, the fact is that whatever we think about the Universe, we’re stuck with it. Just like the trains, the government and the weather. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as grin and bear it.

 

June, by Francis Ledwidge

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on June 19, 2018 by telescoper

Broom out the floor now, lay the fender by,
And plant this bee-sucked bough of woodbine there,
And let the window down. The butterfly
Floats in upon the sunbeam, and the fair
Tanned face of June, the nomad gipsy, laughs
Above her widespread wares, the while she tells
The farmers’ fortunes in the fields, and quaffs
The water from the spider-peopled wells.
The hedges are all drowned in green grass seas,
And bobbing poppies flare like Elmo’s light,
While siren-like the pollen-staind bees
Drone in the clover depths. And up the height
The cuckoo’s voice is hoarse and broke with joy.
And on the lowland crops the crows make raid,
Nor fear the clappers of the farmer’s boy,
Who sleeps, like drunken Noah, in the shad
And loop this red rose in that hazel ring
That snares your little ear, for June is short
And we must joy in it and dance and sing,
And from her bounty draw her rosy worth.
Ay! soon the swallows will be flying south,
The wind wheel north to gather in the snow,
Even the roses spilt on youth’s red mouth
Will soon blow down the road all roses go.

by Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917*)

*One of Ireland’s foremost poets of the First World War, Ledwidge was killed in action on 31st July 1917 at the Battle of Passchendaele.

Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra: Mahler Symphony No. 3

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Music with tags , , , , on June 18, 2018 by telescoper

Well, I’m back in Maynooth after a weekend in Cardiff, on the Sunday of which I went to St David’s Hall to see the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra playing Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony. Actually this concert was originally scheduled to take place on the evening of Friday 15th June, which is why I booked a ticket to return from Bonn in time to see it instead of waiting for the formal close of the meeting. As it turns out, my flight was so late I would have missed it but fortunately the Rolling Stones intervened. Because Jagger et al were performing at the Principality Stadium in Cardiff on Friday (with all the consequent congestion and traffic disruption that implies) it was decided to shift the concert to Sunday 18th, but I couldn’t be bothered to change my flight.

Anyway, it proved an excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon. Gustav Mahler spoke of his Third Symphony as being “of such magnitude that it mirrors the whole world” and you can see what he was getting at by just looking at the scale of the forces arrayed on stage when it’s about to be performed live. For yesterday’s concert at St David’s Hall, the Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra was augmented by the WNO Community Chorus and the Choristers of St David’s Metropolitan Cathedral Choir, as well as soloist mezzo soprano Kate Woolveridge.

The orchestra needed to perform this extravagant work is much larger than for a normal symphony, and it involves some unusual instrumentation: e.g. two harps, a contrabassoon, heaps of percussion (including tuned bells and double tympanists), etc. The string section was boosted by double-basses galore, and there’s also a part (for what I think was a flugelhorn) to be played offstage. The work is also extremely long, being spread over six movements of which the first is the longest (over 30 minutes). Yesterday the performance stretched to about 1 hour and 40 minutes overall, with no interval. I don’t know of any symphonic works longer than this, actually.

It’s worth pointing out that the orchestra and choir(s) tackling this immense work were non-professional. It’s also worth pointing out that the principal French Horn – who is given a lot to do in this piece – was none other than Dr Bernard Richardson, recently retired from the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University.

I have to admit I have always had lot of trouble getting to grips with the first movement, in which various themes are repeatedly played off against each other, punctuated by a series of extravagant crescendo passages in which the orchestra threatened to blow the roof off. It is, at times, thrilling but also manic and, to me, rather indecipherable. The second movement, in the form of a minuet, is elegant enough, and was beautifully played (especially by the strings), but in comparison with the wayward exuberance of the first movement it sounds rather conventional.

The third movement, however, is totally gorgeous, especially in the passages featuring the offstage flugelhorn (?) and the string section of the orchestra on stage. From this point this piece started to bring me under its spell. The solo vocalist and choir(s) were marvellous in the fourth and fifth movements, the former a setting of a poem by Nietzsche and the latter a mixture of traditional verse and Mahler’s own words, but it was in the majestic sixth and final movement that the orchestra really reached its peak. This is one of the most romantic movements to be found in all of Mahler, passionate, lyrical and supremely uplifting. At times before the sixth movement the orchestra (especially the brass) had struggled a bit with the demands of the score, but the finale was as good a performance as you’ll hear anywhere.

Mahler’s 3rd Symphony is an epic journey through a landscape filled with dramatic contrasts. At times you wonder where you are going, and sometimes feel in danger of getting completely lost, but by the time you arrive triumphantly at the final destination all those doubts had melted away. Congratulations to the Cardiff Philharmonic on a very fine performance, warmly received by the audience.

After the concert there was a collection on behalf of the Forget-Me-Not Chorus, which supports people with dementia and their families through weekly singing sessions. I think this is a great initiative and made a donation on the way out – if you feel like doing likewise you can do so here.

Well, that’s my concert-going at St David’s Hall over for another season. Indeed, it’s probably the last concert I’ll be attending there for the foreseeable future, as I’ll be relocating fully to Ireland this summer. I’ll have many fine memories of listening to music there.

Trump the Child-catcher

Posted in Uncategorized on June 16, 2018 by telescoper

The above cartoon, protesting against ‘President’ Trump’s policy of forcibly separating young children from their parents and detaining them in cages, got the artist Rob Rogers fired from his job at the Pittsbugh Post-Gazette.

It seems fairly mild to me, given the enormity of what is going on, so I thought I’d share it here.

Advice to anyone thinking of travelling with Eurowings

Posted in Uncategorized on June 16, 2018 by telescoper

Auf Wiedersehen, Bonn

Posted in Uncategorized on June 15, 2018 by telescoper

So here I am in Cologne-Bonn Airport waiting for my flight back to London Heathrow. The meeting carries on today with a ‘Garage Day’ but I’m skipping that because I don’t have a car.

Inevitably with Eurowings, my plane is delayed by over an hour, which means I’ll be very late back to Cardiff as I’ll miss the bus I had planned to get.

Update: The plane is now delayed by 2 hours and 10 minutes (and counting..)

The Rolling Stones are on in Cardiff tonight and the flight delay probably means I’ll be arriving exactly at the wrong time, when most of the city centre will be sealed off.

I’ve definitely learnt my lesson with Eurowings on this trip and will not be travelling with them again.

Anyway, the delay gives me an opportunity to thank all the organisers of the 2018 Euclid Consortium meeting, which was very well run indeed!