Archive for February, 2019

Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann – Havfruen

Posted in Art with tags , , , , on February 20, 2019 by telescoper

Something else I discovered in the Glyptoteket in Copenhagen on Saturday was the art of Polish-Danish painter Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, who lived from 1819 until 1881. There are many of her compositions on display in Copenhagen. I found some of them very conventional and even a bit sentimental, but she undoubtedly had a distinctive way of handling light and some of her paintings are very fine indeed. I thought I’d pick this one to share as it is a large and striking oil painting that greets you when you enter the first room of Danish art (upstairs).

The title of this is Havfruen (`The Mermaid’).

Incidentally, one of the few things I know how to say in Danish is Den lille Havfrue (`The Little Mermaid’), largely because of the famous statue which is a local Copenhagen landmark. This illustrates an interesting feature of Danish grammar. Instead of adding a definite article, as one would do in English, a singular definite noun is denoted by adding the indefinite article en (or elided form) as a suffix at the end of the noun. This is the rule unless the noun is qualified by an adjective, in which case a definite article `Den’ is put at the front. Hence `the Mermaid’ is Havfruen but `the little Mermaid’ is Den lille Havfrue, owing to the presence of the adjective lille. The Mermaid above may or may not be little, but the painting certainly isn’t!

Danish grammar isn’t really all that hard – quite similar to German, actually – but the pronunciation is very challenging!

Cardiff Blues: Sustainability and UK Universities

Posted in Cardiff, Education with tags , , , on February 20, 2019 by telescoper

Just before I left on my travels last week I saw a rather depressing news item about Cardiff University. It seems that, after posting a deficit of £22.8 M last year, the University is planning to cut about 380 staff positions. According to the news item:

“The university plans to reduce current staff levels by 7%, or 380 full-time equivalent over five years,” said vice chancellor Colin Riordan in an email to staff.

Since I left Cardiff University in the summer I didn’t get the email from which this is quoted and I don’t know the wider picture. (If anyone would like to forward the V-C’s email to me I’d be very interested.)

The news item also says

Its aim is to get back into surplus by 2019-20 and it wants to cut staffing costs from 59.6% of total income to no more than 56% of income by 2022-23.

Between you and me I was quite surprised that a University can be spending less than 60% of its income on staff, since staff are by far its most valuable resource. Bear in mind also that academic staff will be responsible for only a fraction of this expenditure. In some universities this fraction is only about half. Cutting this still further seems a very retrograde step to me, as it means that student-staff ratios will inevitably rise, making the institution less attractive to prospective students, as well as increasing the workload on existing staff to intolerable levels.

I sincerely hope none of my former colleagues in the School of Physics & Astronomy is affected by the deterioration of the University’s finances. At least the news item I referred to does mention new investments in Data Science, so that is presumably a positive development for the Data Innovation Research Institute with which I was formerly associated.

Incidentally, best wishes to anyone at Cardiff who is reading this, and good luck against England in the Six Nations on Saturday!

I’ve mentioned Cardiff here just because I noticed a specific news item (and I used to work there) but it seems a number of other universities are suffering financial problems. There are cold winds blowing through the sector. Many institutions (including Cardiff) have committed to ambitious building programs funded by a combination of borrowing and on optimistic assumptions about growth in student numbers and consequent increases in fee income. Although I no longer work in the UK Higher Education system, I do worry greatly about its sustainability. Even from across the Irish Sea the situation looks extremely precarious: the recent boom could easily end in some institutions going bust. I don’t think that will include Cardiff, by the way. I don’t think the Welsh Government would ever allow that to happen. But I think the English Government wouldn’t act if an English university went bankrupt.

Piano in the Foreground

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , , on February 19, 2019 by telescoper

Judging by the statistics provided by WordPress about the traffic on this blog, there’s less than overwhelming interest in the posts I do about Jazz. Whenever I put such an item on here the number of hits invariably goes down nearly as steeply as when I post poetry. On the other hand, there is at least some overlap between people who like Jazz and people who read this blog for other reasons. Last week, for example, during the public defence of a PhD thesis in Copenhagen the candidate made reference to an album by the great pianist, composer and bandleader Duke Ellington. A large part of the dissertation was devoted to foreground contamination of the cosmic microwave background, which is why Piano in the Foreground came up. I even asked a question about the album cover at the end of the talk – I recognized Duke Ellington and drummer Sam Woodyward, but couldn’t name the bass player. It turned out to be a trick question, in that two bass players appear in the personnel listing of the album, but the one in the picture is Aaron Bell.

Undaunted by the likely negative impact on my blog statistics, I thought I would share the album here. Ellington didn’t record many albums with a piano trio, which is a great shame as he had a wonderful individual style that comes across very well in that setting. He was also extremely influential pianist – you can definitely hear his influence in Thelonious Monk, for example.

Here is the whole album via Youtube and very fine it is too. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did listening to it over the weekend for the first time in decades!

Lecture Demonstration

Posted in Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on February 18, 2019 by telescoper

I am very proud to be at the forefront of teaching innovation, frequently deploying sophisticated new technology in the classroom for the benefit of the student learning experience.

I thought I’d share one of the latest devices I have developed for the Linear Algebra part of my module on Engineering Mathematics as I am all too aware that not all lecturers have such a firm grasp of the range pf possibilities offered by novel educational appliances.

This sophisticated yet lightweight tool utilizes a pressure-sensitive adhesive (`blu tack’) to attach shapes cut from a flexible sheet of a substance derived from cellulose pulp (`paper’) to a rigid plastic geometric measuring device (`ruler’) in order to represent the magnitude and direction of a vector. Illustrated here is the version designed for use with a chalkboard; an alternative version in black is available for use with a whiteboard. The head can be detached in order to separate the concept of magnitude from that of direction.

Made from lightweight materials this device is easily carried to and from the lecture theatre and can be deployed in all weather conditions (apart from rain, wind, snow, etc).

This simple yet effective hi-tech teaching tool is available for purchase throughout the European Union for just €19.99 and in the United Kingdom for £599.50.


Inflation after Planck

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on February 18, 2019 by telescoper

Gratuitous Picture of Planck

There’s a paper on the arXiv by Debika Chowdhury et al with the title Inflation after Planck: Judgment Day and abstract:

Inflation is considered as the best theory of the early universe by a very large fraction of cosmologists. However, the validity of a scientific model is not decided by counting the number of its supporters and, therefore, this dominance cannot be taken as a proof of its correctness. Throughout its history, many criticisms have been put forward against inflation. The final publication of the Planck Cosmic Microwave Background data represents a benchmark time to study their relevance and to decide whether inflation really deserves its supremacy. In this paper, we categorize the criticisms against inflation, go through all of them in the light of what is now observationally known about the early universe, and try to infer and assess the scientific status of inflation. Although we find that important questions still remain open, we conclude that the inflationary paradigm is not in trouble but, on the contrary, has rather been strengthened by the Planck data.

You can download a PDF of the full paper here.

This is a pretty good introduction to live issues around the theory of cosmic inflation in the light of the results from the Planck mission. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether or not you agree with the concluding sentence of the abstract!


Back to Victory

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Maynooth with tags , on February 17, 2019 by telescoper

Well, I got back to Maynooth from my little tour last night, on time and not too knackered. Credit where it’s due to Ryanair, in that all three flights I took last week (Dublin-EMA, Luton-Copenhagen, and Copenhagen-Dublin) were in good order and on schedule, as well as being very cheap.

Today I’ve been in the office for a few hours catching up on some preparation for tomorrow’s teaching. I’m starting a new topic in my Engineering Mathematics module so had to assemble a new problem set for distribution.

That done I downloaded a batch of weekend crosswords. I’ve decided not to buy any more British newspapers and to get my news instead from the Irish Times. However, the Financial Times, Guardian and Observer all put their prize crosswords online for free so I can keep up the crossword habit at a much lower cost.

Downloading this week’s FT Prize Crossword, I found that I’m actually a winner:

It’s interesting that two of the three winners are based in Ireland, though I would not wish to over-interpret this datum.

I wonder how long it will take for the prize to reach me in the post? It’s
The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary, not a dictionary but a book about a dictionary. Meta.

A Day Out in Copenhagen

Posted in Art with tags , on February 16, 2019 by telescoper

As planned I spent most of today as a tourist in the fine city of Copenhagen. Specifically I decided to visit the Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, a museum of considerable interest. Here are some pictures I took inside.

Head of a wounded Amazon, a roman copy of a Greek original, c. 350 BC

A fine selection of classical beards

Head Room

Statue of the Egyptian God Anubis

A fine collection of bronzes by Degas.

And this is a gratuitous tourist picture of the lovely harbour of Nyhavn in the sunshine…

And after that I had a late lunch with an old friend. All in all rather a nice day. Now I should get my stuff together and head to the departure gate!

Fortiter Defendit Triumphans

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on February 16, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am in my hotel room in Copenhagen after breakfast doing a quick post before checking out. I’ve put the DO NOT DISTURB sign on the door.

Ibsens Hotel seems to know its guests!

My flight back to Dublin is not until this evening and I have to leave the hotel by 11am (local time) so I have a few hours wandering about the city which should be very nice, since the weather is lovely.

I took the above picture with my phone yesterday morning while taking the short walk to the Niels Bohr Institute. The strange effect was cause by the mist hanging over the city. This morning is bright and sunny. Ideal for a walk about.

Anyway, the main point of this post is to congratulate Dr Sebastian von Hausegger who successfully defended his PhD thesis yesterday. In the Danish system the thesis defence is a public affair, involving a talk by the candidate followed by questions from a panel involving two external examiners, of which I was one. The talk lasted about 45 minutes and was followed by about 40 minutes of questions. I’m told that was a longer than usual question-and-answer session, but that’s only because we found the thesis so interesting. The thesis concerned various projects related to the cosmic microwave background, including foreground subtraction methods and analysis of polarization.

It was actually a very enjoyable occasion, rather than an ordeal, and the candidate passed with flying colours. Afterwards there was a small drinks reception, during which I got to talk to Sebastian’s parents and his girlfriend (who apparently reads this blog). I hope they all had a good celebration yesterday evening!

P.S. I couldn’t think of a good title for this post so I borrowed the latin motto of the City of Newcastle (my home town). Roughly translated it means `triumphing by brave defence’!

Subaru and Cosmic Shear

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on February 15, 2019 by telescoper

Up with the lark this morning I suddenly remembered I was going to do a post about a paper which actually appeared on the arXiv some time ago. Apart from the fact that it’s a very nice piece of work, the first author is Chiaki Hikage who worked with me as a postdoc about a decade ago. This paper is extremely careful and thorough, which is typical of Chiaki’s work. Its abstract is here:

The work described uses the Hyper-Suprime-Cam Subaru Telescope to probe how the large-scale structure of the Universe has evolved by looking at the statistical effect of gravitational lensing – specifically cosmic shear – as a function of redshift (which relates to look-back time). The use of redshift binning as demonstrated in this paper is often called tomography. Gravitational lensing is sensitive to all the gravitating material along the line of sight to the observer so probes dark, as well as luminous, matter.

Here’s a related graphic:

The article that reminded me of this paper is entitled New Map of Dark Matter Spanning 10 Million Galaxies Hints at a Flaw in Our Physics. Well, no it doesn’t really. Read the abstract, where you will find a clear statement that these results `do not show significant evidence for discordance’. Just a glance at the figures in the paper will convince you that is the case. Of course, that’s not to say that the full survey (which will be very much bigger; the current paper is based on just 11% of the full data set) may not reveal such discrepancies, just that analysis does not. Sadly this is yet another example of misleadingly exaggerated science reporting. There’s a lot of it about.

Incidentally, the parameter S8 is a (slightly) rescaled version of the more familiar parameter σ8  – which quantifies the matter-density fluctuations on a scale of 8 h-1 Mpc – as defined in the abstract; cosmic shear is particularly sensitive to this parameter.

Anyway, if this is what can be done with just 11%, the full survey should be a doozy!

Copenhagen Yet Again

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , on February 14, 2019 by telescoper

Once again I find myself in the wonderful city of Copenhagen. As far as I’m concerned, at least, my wavefunction has collapsed (along with the rest of me into a definite location: Ibsen’s Hotel, in fact. Henrik Ibsen isn’t here: he checked out many years ago.

The hotel management, being Danes, are refreshingly honest in their description of my room:

Usually hotel rooms this size are described as `standard’…

After a very enjoyable but rather tiring day yesterday I was up early this morning to get from Loughborough to Luton Airport. What I thought would be the reasonable way of making the trip – train from Loughborough to Luton Airport Parkway and shuttle bus from there – turned out to be inconvenient in terms of timing and cost, so the kind people of Loughborough University just booked me a cab all the way there. I had to leave at 7am, though, so missed the hotel breakfast but I got to the airport in good time to have something there.

My second flight with Ryanair this week was also on time and Copenhagen’s excellent public transport system got me to this hotel very quickly. It’s a good few degrees colder here than in England.

When I checked in the receptionist asked me if I had stayed here before. I said yes, but couldn’t remember when. She said it was 2012, as I was still on their system. I did actually post about it then. The hotel hasn’t changed at all from what I remember last time. I must remember to get to breakfast in good time.

The flight from Luton Airport carried a large contingent of Chelsea supporters. Their team is playing  Malmö this evening in the UEFA Europa League. Malmö is easily reachable from Copenhagen by train over the Øresund Bridge. Fortunately I was heading into Copenhagen on the Metro so parted company with the supporters as soon as I left the airport.

Anyway, I’m in Copenhagen again as one of the External Examiners for a thesis defence at the Niels Bohr Institute tomorrow morning and then I’ll be returning directly to Dublin on Saturday afternoon. I’m missing today’s Computational Physics lecture and laboratory in Maynooth, but the students are being well looked after in my absence by John and Aaron who have all the notes and lab scripts.