Archive for October, 2018

Misty Maynooth

Posted in Maynooth on October 18, 2018 by telescoper

I took this picture of St Patrick’s College on the way into work this morning. It turned out quite well, so I’m sharing it here.


A Breakthrough for a Bigot

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 18, 2018 by telescoper

You may recall that a few months ago I wrote a post about Dr Aron Wall, whose research speciality is Black Hole Thermodynamics, and who is moving to Cambridge next year to take up a Lectureship. Yesterday I heard the news that Dr Wall (who is currently at Stanford) has been awarded a New Horizons Breakthrough Prize of $100,000. Three such prizes are awarded each year for outstanding early career researchers.

This is just a reminder that, when he isn’t doing theoretical physics, Dr Wall also runs a blog in which he expresses outspokenly homophobic views. For example, one piece included bigoted generalizations such as:

…the notoriously promiscuous, reckless, and obscene lifestyle characteristic of the cultural venues of the gay community.

It sounds like he knows a lot about these places. Does he visit them often? The press release from Stanford does not say.

You can read his whole piece for yourself* and decide what you think. As a gay man I found it thoroughly offensive, but what I think is not as important as what effect this person’s presence in the teaching staff will mean for any LGBT+ students at DAMTP. I hope Dr Wall enjoys the compulsory Equality and Diversity Training he will be required to undergo as a new member of staff and that he does not let his extremist beliefs interfere with his responsibility as a lecturer to treat all staff and students with the respect they deserve.

(*He’s deleted it, so I linked to an archived version…)

Some people have said that Dr Wall’s private beliefs are his own business, as long as he is good at his job. I agree with that. However his beliefs are no longer private. He has himself chosen to make them public. I think that makes a big difference. His views are known publicly, and that does not help to provide a welcoming environment for LGBT+ students (which I would have thought was part of his job). You might say that `It’s OK. Just keep him away from LGBT+ students’. That seems to me a pathetic response, no different from saying that its acceptable to employ a serial sexual harasser as long as you keep him away from female students. The duty of a member of academic staff is to the entire academic community (staff and students), not just the fraction of it that the staff member isn’t bigoted against.

I just wonder whether the Breakthrough Prize would have been awarded to a person with outspoken racist or sexist views? And should prizes be awarded to people who are good at science regardless of attitudes that cast severe doubt on their ability or willingness to foster a spirit of inclusivity within which other scientists can flourish?


P.S. Note the diversity of the panel that made this award!


R.I.P. Prof. Michael J Thompson

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

I just returned from giving a lecture to find an email in my inbox delivering the awful news that Professor Michael J. Thompson (pictured above) passed away unexpectedly on 15th October 2018, while at a scientific meeting in Tokyo.

Thompson’s scientific research activity was primarily in the field of helioseismology, astroseismology, solar physics, and inverse problems. He worked extensively in developing and applying inverse techniques in helioseismology and, in particular, measuring the stratification, rotation, and large-scale flows in the solar interior.

Along with being the Deputy Director and Chief Operating Officer of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, Michael Thompson was also an NCAR senior scientist. From 2010 to 2014 he directed the High Altitude Observatory and was an associate director of NCAR. Prior to joining NCAR, Mike Thompson was Head of the School of Mathematics and Statistics in the University of Sheffield, and was formerly a Professor of Physics at Imperial College London. I knew him very well personally from the time before that, as we worked together for many years in the Astronomy Unit in the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London. Although we didn’t work in the same topics we had many interesting discussions about inverse problems in our respective fields, as well as many other topics (especially cricket). I recall that he taught an MSc course on cosmology, which he volunteered to do as he was interested in learning more about the subject.

More recently we kept in touch regularly via dinners at the RAS Club, of which he was a member, until he moved to the USA. It is through the Club mailing list that I learnt the sad news of his death.

I know I can speak for everyone who knew him in saying that he was not only a first-rate scientist but also a greatly valued colleague and an extremely nice man. Mike will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him, and I extend my deepest condolences to his family at what must be a very difficult time.

The Blue of the Night: Giant Steps from Ondine

Posted in Jazz, Music with tags , , , , , , on October 17, 2018 by telescoper

Time for a quick lunchtime post before I settle down to an afternoon of marking coursework.

On Monday evening after finishing preparing my lectures and things for Tuesday, I decided to tune in for a while to The Blue of the Night on RTÉ Lyric FM which is presented by Bernard Clarke. This is a programme that I listen to quite often in the evenings as I enjoy its eclectic mix of music.

Anyway, the Blue of Monday Night included a recording of the movement Ondine from the piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit by Maurice Ravel. As I listened to it, I started to think of an entirely different piece, the jazz classic Giant Steps, by John Coltrane (which I’ve actually posted on this blog here). Not really expecting anything to come of it, I sent a message on Twitter to Bernard Clarke mentioning the fact that the Ravel piece reminded me of Giant Steps. A few minutes later I was astonished to hear Giant Steps playing. Bernard had not only replied to me on Twitter, but had slipped the Coltrane track into the programme. Which was nice.

That confirmed the similarity in my mind and I did some frantic Googling to see if anyone else had noticed the similarity. Of course they have. In a rather dense article about music theory (most of which I don’t understand, having never really studied this properly) I found this:

I didn’t know at first what the up and down arrows annotating the two pieces were, but they represent the harmonic progression in a very interesting way that I had never thought about it before. The assertion is that in some sense the (sub-dominant) IV and (dominant) V chords which very common in popular music are closely related. To see why, imagine you play C on a piano keyboard. If you go 7 semitones to the right you will arrive at G, which is the root note of the relevant V chord. That’s up a perfect fifth. But if instead you go 7 semitones to the left you get to F which is a fifth down but is also a perfect fourth if looked at from the point of view of C an octave below where you started. In this way `up’ arrow represents a perfect fifth up (or a perfect fourth down) while the `down’ arrow is a perfect fifth down or a perfect fourth up. This is deemed to be the basic (or `simple proper’) chord progression.

Single or double arrows to left or right represent substitutions of various kinds (e.g. a minor third), but I won’t go further into the details. The key point is that while the actual chords differ after the first few changes because of the different substitutions, the chord progression in these two piece is remarkably similar judged by the sequence of arrows. The main exception is a different substitution in bar 3 of the Coltrane excerpt. Both pieces end up achieving the same thing: they complete an entire chromatic cycle through a sequence of basic progressions and substitutions.

I don’t know whether Coltrane was directly inspired by listening to Ravel or whether they both hit on the same idea independently, but I find this totally fascinating. So much so that I’ll probably end up trying to annotate some of the chord changes I’ve worked out from other recordings and see what they look like in the notation outlined above.


Open Journal Updates

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on October 16, 2018 by telescoper

Just finished today’s teaching so I thought I’d chill for a few minutes and pass on a few quick updates about the Open Journal of Astrophysics, which was formally (re)launched last week.

The first thing is that at the weekend I sent an online training video and guide around the members of the Editorial Board and introduced them all to the new platform’s messaging system, which is a very convenient way for us to keep in touch. I had lots of volunteers for the Editorial Board and I couldn’t select everyone but I tried to choose members with a good geographical distribution, spread of expertise, and gender balance. We may add more in due course, as we’re still quite cosmologist-heavy, but I think we have enough to get started: we have editors in Australia, France, Italy, United States of America and Mexico as well as the United Kingdom.

We have received some submissions already and are dealing with them through the new platform, which is requiring the Editors to engage in some `on-the-job’ training. Hopefully they’ll get the hang of it soon!

Another relevant piece of news is that we have updated the DOIs associated with the papers we published with the old platform to point to the new site so they are now fully incorporated. For the record these are:





I’ll also take this opportunity to remind you that the Open Journal of Astrophysics is open for new submissions, so please feel free to give it a try!

Finally, I’d like to point you to an article about Open Access Publishing in the latest Physics Today, which begins

Publishers of scientific journals are facing renewed threats to their business models from both sides of the Atlantic.

You better believe it!

The Big Bang Exploded?

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 15, 2018 by telescoper

I suspect that I’m not the only physicist who receives unsolicited correspondence from people with wacky views on Life, the Universe and Everything. Being a cosmologist, I probably get more of this stuff than those working in less speculative branches of physics. Because I’ve written a few things that appeared in the public domain, I probably even get more than most cosmologists (except the really famous ones of course).

Many “alternative” cosmologists have now discovered email, and indeed the comments box on this blog, but there are still a lot who send their ideas through regular post. Whenever I get a envelope with an address on it that has been typed by an old-fashioned typewriter it’s a dead giveaway that it’s going to be one of those. Sometimes they are just letters (typed or handwritten), but sometimes they are complete manuscripts often with wonderfully batty illustrations. I remember one called Dark Matter, The Great Pyramid and the Theory of Crystal Healing. I used to have an entire filing cabinet filled with things like his, but I took the opportunity of moving from Cardiff some time ago to throw most of them out.

One particular correspondent started writing to me after the publication of my little book, Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction. This chap sent a terse letter to me pointing out that the Big Bang theory was obviously completely wrong. The reason was obvious to anyone who understood thermodynamics. He had spent a lifetime designing high-quality refrigeration equipment and therefore knew what he was talking about (or so he said). He even sent me this booklet about his ideas, which for some reason I have neglected to send for recycling:

His point was that, according to the Big Bang theory, the Universe cools as it expands. Its current temperature is about 3 Kelvin (-270 Celsius or thereabouts) but it is now expanding and cooling. Turning the clock back gives a Universe that was hotter when it was younger. He thought this was all wrong.

The argument is false, my correspondent asserted, because the Universe – by definition – hasn’t got any surroundings and therefore isn’t expanding into anything. Since it isn’t pushing against anything it can’t do any work. The internal energy of the gas must therefore remain constant and since the internal energy of an ideal gas is only a function of its temperature, the expansion of the Universe must therefore be at a constant temperature (i.e. isothermal, rather than adiabatic). He backed up his argument with bona fide experimental results on the free expansion of gases.

I didn’t reply and filed the letter away. Another came, and I did likewise. Increasingly overcome by some form of apoplexy his letters got ruder and ruder, eventually blaming me for the decline of the British education system and demanding that I be fired from my job. Finally, he wrote to the President of the Royal Society demanding that I be “struck off” and forbidden (on grounds of incompetence) ever to teach thermodynamics in a University. The copies of the letters he sent me are still will the pamphlet.

I don’t agree with him that the Big Bang is wrong, but I’ve never had the energy to reply to his rather belligerent letters. However, I think it might be fun to turn this into a little competition, so here’s a challenge for you: provide the clearest and most succint explanation of why the temperature of the expanding Universe does fall with time, despite what my correspondent thought.

Answers via the comment box please!

Especially when the October Wind

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on October 15, 2018 by telescoper

Especially when the October wind
With frosty fingers punishes my hair,
Caught by the crabbing sun I walk on fire
And cast a shadow crab upon the land,
By the sea’s side, hearing the noise of birds,
Hearing the raven cough in winter sticks,
My busy heart who shudders as she talks
Sheds the syllabic blood and drains her words.

Shut, too, in a tower of words, I mark
On the horizon walking like the trees
The wordy shapes of women, and the rows
Of the star-gestured children in the park.
Some let me make you of the vowelled beeches,
Some of the oaken voices, from the roots
Of many a thorny shire tell you notes,
Some let me make you of the water’s speeches.

Behind a pot of ferns the wagging clock
Tells me the hour’s word, the neural meaning
Flies on the shafted disk, declaims the morning
And tells the windy weather in the cock.
Some let me make you of the meadow’s signs;
The signal grass that tells me all I know
Breaks with the wormy winter through the eye.
Some let me tell you of the raven’s sins.

Especially when the October wind
(Some let me make you of autumnal spells,
The spider-tongued, and the loud hill of Wales)
With fists of turnips punishes the land,
Some let me make you of the heartless words.
The heart is drained that, spelling in the scurry
Of chemic blood, warned of the coming fury.
By the sea’s side hear the dark-vowelled birds.

by Dylan Thomas (1914-1953)