Archive for July, 2018

Planck’s Last Papers

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 17, 2018 by telescoper

Well, they’ve been a little while coming but just today I heard that the final set of a dozen papers from the European Space Agency’s Planck mission are now available. You can find the latest ones, along with the all the others, here.

This final `Legacy’ set of papers is sure to be a vital resource for many years to come and I can hear in my mind’s ear the sound of cosmologists all around the globe scurrying to download them!

I’m not sure when I’ll get time to read these papers, so if anyone finds any interesting nuggets therein please feel free to comment below!


Georges Lemaître: Google Doodle Poll

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 17, 2018 by telescoper


I noticed this morning that today’s Google Doodle (above) features none other than Georges Lemaître. That reminded me that a while ago I stumbled across a post on the Physics World Blog concerning a radio broadcast about Georges Lemaître.

Here’s a description of said programme:

Few theories could claim to have a more fundamental status than Big Bang Theory. This is now humanity’s best attempt at explaining how we got here: A Theory of Everything. This much is widely known and Big Bang Theory is now one of the most recognisable scientific brands in the world. What’s less well known is that the man who first proposed the theory was not only an accomplished physicist, he was also a Catholic priest. Father Georges Lemaître wore his clerical collar while teaching physics, and not at Oxford, Cambridge or MIT but at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. It was this unassuming Catholic priest in an academic backwater who has changed the way we look at the origins of the universe. His story also challenges the assumption that science and religion are always in conflict. William Crawley introduces us to the “Father” of the Big Bang.

The question is whether the word “Father” in the last sentence should be taken as anything more than a play on the title he’d be given as a Catholic priest?

Lemaître’s work was indeed highly original and it undoubtedly played an important role in the development of the Big Bang theory, especially in Western Europe and in the United States. However, a far stronger claim to the title of progenitor of this theory belongs to Alexander Alexandrovich Friedman, who obtained the cosmological solutions of Einstein’s general theory of relativity, on which the Big Bang model is based, independently of and shortly before Lemaître did. Unfortunately the Russian Friedman died in 1925 and it was many years before his work became widely known in the West. At least in my book, he’s the real “father” of the Big Bang, but I’m well aware that this is the source of a great deal of argument at cosmology conferences (especially when Russian cosmologists are present), which makes it an apt topic for a quick poll:

P.S. I prefer to spell Friedman with one “n” rather than two. His name in his own language is Алекса́ндр Алекса́ндрович Фри́дман and the spelling “Friedmann” only arose because of later translations into German.

Hair pursued by two planets

Posted in Art with tags , , on July 16, 2018 by telescoper

Joan Miró (1893-1993), painted in 1968. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 195 X 130 cm (Fundació Joan Miró, Barcelona). Original title: Cabell perseguit per dos planetes.

World Cup Félicitations!

Posted in Football on July 15, 2018 by telescoper

French President Emmanuel Macron seemed rather excited at the end of this afternoon’s World Cup Final, and why not? France are worthy winners of what has been a fascinating competition after a very exciting final, which I watched in a pub in Maynooth. Most of the crowd there were rooting for underdogs Croatia, actually.

Incidentally, before the match, the bookies were offering odds of 4-1 against Croatia, which I reckoned was quite generous. Although I thought France would win, I didn’t think there was all much between the two sides. I didn’t place a bet though…

As it turned out I thought Croatia were a bit unlucky, actually, and for long periods they looked the better organised and more composed team; they were certainly better at keeping the ball in midfield: overall Croatia had 66% possession, which is an amazing statistic for a team that lost 4-2!

France’s prodigiously talented forward Kylian Mbappé was particularly wasteful, giving the ball away frequently in the first half. It was only when Croatia fell 3-1 behind and had to throw men forward that Mbappe started to find space and from then on he was a constant threat.

Much of the reaction to the result focussed on the penalty for handball, which didn’t look intentional to me. That may have been vital but I think Croatia’s goalkeeper should have done better with the two second-half goals that really killed off the game.

Anyway all credit to Croatia for playing their part in an exciting final, and for keeping going right to the end. They definitely had chances to get back into the game, but it just wasn’t to be.

Croatia were a little unlucky this afternoon, but over the whole competition I think France were the most consistently impressive team and deserved to win the World Cup.

Le football rentre à la maison!


P. P. S. We had a bit of rain today, which was nice!

Drought in Greater Dublin

Posted in Maynooth on July 14, 2018 by telescoper

The prolonged period of dry weather we’ve been having in Ireland has led to a water shortage in Greater Dublin and some surrounding districts, including Maynooth in County Kildare (where I live). A hosepipe ban has been in place for some time and now there are restrictions on overnight water usage in Dublin, although not yet in Maynooth.

The map above shows the area affected by the hosepipe ban, which doesn’t affect me because I haven’t got a garden, but I’ve included it because it shows Maynooth and some of the neighbouring towns, in one of which I might well find myself living permanently.

The bus route from Maynooth to Dublin Airport passes through Leixlip and Lucan Village. My current residence is on Straffan Road, which leads south from Maynooth to Straffan. Other notable places are Kilcock, Celbridge, and… er…. Newcastle.

My Time Out in Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Brighton, LGBT, Mental Health with tags , , , , , on July 13, 2018 by telescoper

Last week I did a little talk in Cardiff for LGBT Stem Day, which was similar to another I gave earlier this year at the IOP in London at the launch of the LGBT Physical Sciences Climate Survey. I intended to post a summary of the earlier presentation but somehow never got round to it. Doing the more recent one reminded me that I’d forgotten to write up my notes, so here goes.

What I was trying to do in these talks was to explain why I thought (a) the Climate Survey and (b) LGBT STEM day were so important, from the perspective of someone who has been `out’ for over thirty years while pursuing a career in astrophysics. I thought it might be useful to include some personal reminiscences along the way as in both cases most of the audience members were too young to remember what things were like over thirty years ago.

Although I knew I was gay when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, I wasn’t very open about it except to my closest friends. I also didn’t do much about it either, apart from developing a number of crushes that were doomed to be unrequited. In my final year I decided that I would try to get a place to do a PhD (or, as it turned out, a DPhil). I applied to a few places around the country, and was very happy to get an offer from Sussex and started my postgraduate studies there in 1985. The reputation of Brighton as being a very `gay’ place to live was definitely part of that decision although it was really the topic of my research project that was the decisive factor.

One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at Sussex was join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. Initially, though, I kept that part of my life separate from my academic life and wasn’t really all that open in the Department in which I worked. My decision to change that was largely because of things going on in the outside world that convinced me that there was a need to stand up and be counted.

One of these was the AIDS `panic’ exacerbated by the Thatcher Government’s awful advertising campaign, an example of which you can see above. It was a very frightening time to be gay, not only because of the fear of contracting AIDS oneself  but also because of the hostility that arose as a reaction to the `gay plague’.

Although I wasn’t really sexually active as an undergraduate at Cambridge, I had been while I was at school in Newcastle up until 1982. At this time gay sex was illegal with a person under the age of 21, but I had no difficulty finding partners when I was a teenager. I assumed that, as a result of this period of my life,  I would be found HIV+. When I eventually did have a test in 1986 I was quite shocked to find I was negative, so much so that I had another test to make sure. I was lucky, countless others were not.

The second thing that made me want to come out was the Local Government Act (1988), which included the now infamous Section 28 (above). This was the subject of the first political demonstrations I ever attended, but we failed to stop it becoming law.

Anyway, I just got fed up of hearing people making ill-informed generalisations during this time. Rather than make a big public statement about being gay, I just resolved to not let such comments pass. I think it only took a few intercessions in the tea room or Falmer Bar for it to become widely known in the Department that I was gay. That was how I came out in astrophysics, and thereafter almost everyone just seemed to know.

I have to say that for quite a long time in this period my general presumption was that a majority of heterosexual people were actively hostile to LGBT+ people, and that would always remain the case. There were quite a few gay people in Brighton who felt the same and their reaction was to become separatists. The logic was that straight people were always going to be horrible, so to hell with them. You could drink in gay bars, eat in gay restaurants, live in a gay part of the town, etc, and thereby minimise interaction with the hostile majority. This seemed an attractive lifestyle to me for some time, but I gradually began to feel that if there was ever going to be a chance of things changing for the better, LGBT+ people had to engage and form alliances. That strategy seems to have worked for the wider community, and I applaud the many straight people who have become allies.

It hadn’t been fear that my sexuality would have a negative impact on my academic career that had held me back – I never really thought I was going to have an academic career until near the end of my time as a research student – it was more fear of confrontation with colleagues who would be hostile. That never really happened. Over the past thirty-odd years, the vast majority of people I’ve known through astrophysics have been friendly and welcoming. There have been exceptions of course, but I won’t waste my time on them here.

Now fast forward to 2018. Not only has Section 28 gone (it was repealed first in Scotland in 2000,  and then nin England & Wales in 2003), but since 2003 the Age of Consent is now equal for everyone and more recently we now have Equal Marriage. If you had asked me back in 1985 whether I thought there was any chance of this happening even on a thirty year timescale, I would have laughed at you.

But although many things have changed for the better, the fact remains that LGBT+ people still face widespread hostility and violence. Bullying is rife in schools, many people are still afraid to come out in their workplace, and in many situations there is still a threat of violence. I know what impact the latter can have, as I have experienced it myself and is has caused me mental health problems throughout my life. In fact, I have found it much harder to be open about my mental health problems than I ever did about being gay!

There are increasing signs of a backlash against LGBT+ people, most obviously in Trump’s America. The rights we have won over the years could so easily be taken away and my fear is that if we are complacent and pretend that everything is fixed because we have equal marriage then we will soon see those rights being eroded. We have to remain active and visible, and keep pushing against all forms of discrimination, harassment and bullying wherever it happens. And the first step in doing that is to raise awareness among everyone that it is still a problem.

Now to some specific points about working in STEM.

First, my own experiences caused me not to perceive science being a difficult environment to be gay, but I am aware that many people have quite different perceptions, often with good reasons. One thing that feeds negative perceptions is simply the lack of positive statements. I remember, over a decade ago, being asked by representative of a major STEM organisation if I could think of anything they could do to make them appear more inclusive to LGBT+ people. I looked at the `equal opportunities’ bit on their website and found that it mentioned gender, race, disability, etc but entirely omitted sexual orientation. What message does that send to an LGBT+ person? The omission was not deliberate, but the perception might well be otherwise. Many institutions display posters about LGBT+ matters, and some staff (either LGBT+ or `allies’) wear rainbow lanyards to carry their ID cards. But what if you’re a student who sees these everywhere else other than your own department? Has nobody bothered to put posters up, or has some arsehole torn them all down?

Another important issue is visibility. Students and early career researchers may be deterred from continuing a career in STEM simply because they don’t see other LGBT+ people doing likewise. I know of at least one student who was on the verge of dropping out of a physics degree because `there are no gay people in physics’. Fortunately he said that to a member of staff who knew he was wrong, as her office was next door to mine, but this does illustrate another problem of perception in STEM fields. In Arts and Humanities subjects it’s much easier to be visible as LGBT+ through your work. You even research matters related to gender or sexuality in literature, for example. It’s rather harder when you do theoretical astrophysics. But what’s wrong with having a rainbow icon on your powerpoint?

When giving my talk at the IOP I got into a discussion about `role models’. I am horrified at the thought that anyone would think of me as a `role model’. I don’t like using that term because it seems to me to imply some sort of ideal to which others should aspire, which seems to me rather arrogant. What I do think is important is for as imany LGBT+ people as possible to say `I’m LGBT+ and I’m in STEM: if I can do it and be like me, warts and all, then you can do it and be like you!’

A comment that I’ve heard about LGBT+ people in STEM goes along the lines of `We don’t need all this political stuff in science. You should just concentrate on your research’. Another version I heard from a senior scientist recently was effectively `I’m not prejudiced at all. I don’t care about your sexuality. I’m only interested in your research!’. I think this kind of stance is not uncommon, actually, but I couldn’t disagree more with it.

Science is, above all, a human activity. It’s not done by robots or calculating machines. It’s done by people. And I don’t think you will get the best science out of your research time unless you create a working environment in which everyone feels comfortable and happy being themselves. Just a few small gestures can go a long way towards creating a department or research group that’s genuinely inclusive for all the people in it.

Of course some STEM subjects have other diversity and inclusivity issues to address. For example, there is a persistent gender imbalance in UK Physics that has resisted many initiatives to encourage more women to enter the field. I’m not arguing that LGBT+ matters more than this or indeed more than race or disability or anything else. It is, however, my firm belief that taking measures to make workplace as inclusive as possible actually benefits everyone  in it. That’s partly because it’s the way to build the best team, and partly the way to get the best out of the team once you have assembled it, but it’s also a good thing to do for its own sake.

Another comment I got on Twitter a few weeks ago `When is it Straight STEM Day?’ Well, perhaps when 69% of heterosexual people feel uncomfortable in the workplace because of their sexuality, or when students are bullied at school for being straight, then perhaps there’ll be a need for it. In the meantime, you just need to recognise that despite the undeniable progress there has been over the past decades, there still isn’t anything like full symmetry between straight and gay.

Finally, and I think this brings me more-or-less back to where I started, events like the LGBT+ STEM Day and initiatives like the LGBT+ Climate Survey are vital because they acknowledge that we’re involved in a  process, not a fixed state and we have to recognise that this process could easily be pushed into reverse. All that’s needed for that to happen is for people to assume that everything is fine now and close their eyes to the overwhelming evidence that it really isn’t.

POSTSCRIPT: A thought that occurred to me while I was writing this relates to inclusivity within the LGBT+ community itself. When I arrived at Sussex in 1985, I joined `GaySoc’. A few years later that became `Lesbian & Gay Soc’. It took a lot longer for Bisexuals to be acknowledged, and even longer for Trans people. Only last week the annual Gay Pride March in London was disrupted by anti-transgender campaigners. Some of us still have a lot to learn about what it means to be inclusive.


A source of high-energy neutrinos!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 12, 2018 by telescoper

Before I go for a lie down here is a video that goes with the discovery of the first astrophysical source of high-energy neutrinos!

You can find the two Science papers relating to the discovery here and here. The first abstract reads:

Previous detections of individual astrophysical sources of neutrinos are limited to the Sun and the supernova 1987A, whereas the origins of the diffuse flux of high-energy cosmic neutrinos remain unidentified. On 22 September 2017, we detected a high-energy neutrino, IceCube-170922A, with an energy of ~290 TeV. Its arrival direction was consistent with the location of a known γ-ray blazar, TXS 0506+056, observed to be in a flaring state. An extensive multi-wavelength campaign followed, ranging from radio frequencies to γ-rays. These observations characterize the variability and energetics of the blazar and include the detection of TXS 0506+056 in very-high-energy γ-rays. This observation of a neutrino in spatial coincidence with a γ-ray–emitting blazar during an active phase suggests that blazars may be a source of high-energy neutrino.

The other abstract is:

A high-energy neutrino event detected by IceCube on 22 September 2017 was coincident in direction and time with a gamma-ray flare from the blazar TXS 0506+056. Prompted by this association, we investigated 9.5 years of IceCube neutrino observations to search for excess emission at the position of the blazar. We found an excess of high-energy neutrino events, with respect to atmospheric backgrounds, at that position between September 2014 and March 2015. Allowing for time-variable flux, this constitutes 3.5σ evidence for neutrino emission from the direction of TXS 0506+056, independent of and prior to the 2017 flaring episode. This suggests that blazars are identifiable sources of the high-energy astrophysical neutrino flux.

It’s all very cool!