Archive for October, 2020

How Mozart Became a Bad Composer, by Glenn Gould

Posted in Music with tags , , on October 26, 2020 by telescoper

I’m not sure how many readers will agree with Glenn Gould’s analysis of Mozart’s piano compositions, especially his later ones, but I think it’s well worth watching and listening to, not least because the presenter is obviously relishing the opportunity to say what he really thinks in the full knowledge that in the process he is winding up a great many of his audience! It’s also interesting how he delivers his pieces to camera: it doesn’t look like he’s using an autocue but he’s a very precise and coherent speaker.

Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair

Posted in Beards, Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags on October 26, 2020 by telescoper

Today being the last Monday of October, it’s a Bank Holiday here in Ireland so I’m having the day off (well, at least the morning: I have a telecon this afternoon). This week is Study Week too so there are no lectures or tutorials – real or virtual – until next Monday. Now that I have a broadband connection at home I’ll be working from here much more as the Level 5 restrictions require me to. It won’t be ideal because a lot of my work stuff is still in the office on campus, but at least I’ll be more comfortable than first time round, when I was in the flat.

Normally, most students go home for some or all of Study Week and return to campus the following week. This year I suppose most will stay where they are, although some might go home and stay there until the end of term since virtually all their teaching is online this term. They won’t even have to come back for the examinations after Christmas as these will be online too. It’s anyone’s guess whether we will have teaching on campus next Semester.

Coincidentally, the first campus closure started just before a Bank Holiday too. That was St Patrick’s Day. It seems like an eternity ago. The news of my award of the St Patrick’s Day Beard of Ireland would surely have made front pages across the Republic had it not been for the Covid-19 Pandemic. I think I’ll refrain from trimming my beard for the duration of the new restrictions like I did during the original lockdown.

Incidentally, the Irish word for beard is Féasóg. Also incidentally, I’ve signed up to have Irish language lessons this term; they start in November.

As I’ve mentioned before, this Bank Holiday (as others of its type in Ireland) has a sort of astronomical connection. In the Northern hemisphere, from an astronomical point of view, the solar year is defined by the two solstices (summer, around June 21st, and winter around December 21st) and the equinoxes (spring, around March 21st, and Autumn, around September 21st). These four events divide the year into four roughly equal parts each of about 13 week. If you divide each of these intervals in two you divide the year into eight pieces of six and a bit weeks each. The dates midway between the astronomical events mentioned above are (roughly) :

1st February: Imbolc (Candlemas)
1st May: Beltane (Mayday)
1st August: Lughnasadh (Lammas)
1st November: Samhain (All Saints Day)

The names I’ve added are taken from the Celtic/neo-Pagan (and Christian) terms for these cross-quarter days. These timings are rough because the dates of the equinoxes and solstices vary from year to year. Imbolc is often taken to be the 2nd of February (Groundhog Day) and Samhain is sometimes taken to be October 31st, Halloween.
Another name for the present Bank Holiday is Lá Saoire Oíche Shamhna (Halloween Holiday), although Halloween itself does not occur until next Saturday. Bank Holidays are always on Mondays here so they’re often a few days away from the dates above.

An Ungracious Nobel

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 25, 2020 by telescoper

Reinhard Genzel

You will no doubt recall the announcement a few weeks ago of the award of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics to Roger Penrose, Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel.

Last week I saw an interview Professor Genzel to the German magazine Der Spiegel, which you can find here. I posted in on Facebook and was going to blog about it but I was busy and it slipped my mind. You can read the interview yourself and form your own opinion about it, but I found parts of it churlish and discourteous. You would think someone who had just won a Nobel prize would be a bit more gracious. Perhaps Genzel resents having to share it?

The first thing I found regrettable was the part about the work of the Event Horizon Telescope that I reported here last year:

Genzel: It was good that their image received a lot of attention. It is important to get people excited about research. And astronomy has a special role to play.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you trying to say that the image was good for attracting an audience, but wasn’t all that important from a scientific point of view?

Genzel: No, I wouldn’t say that. It is true, though, that such a beautiful, orange picture is enticing, even if it can’t be clearly interpreted. An open discussion is still ongoing among experts: Are we really sure of what we are looking at in this picture?

It is true that there are questions about how precisely to interpret the famous image, but did he really have to sound so dismissive? It seems to me that what follows  “No, I wouldn’t say that..” indicates that is precisely what he thinks.

I think of more importance though is what the interview reveals about his attitude to Andrea Ghez, with whom he shared half the prize. I’m not going to comment on the obvious falling out between the two. That kind of thing is regrettable but it does happen from time to time, and I don’t know enough about the background to attach any blame to either side. The question is, though, why would Genzel choose this moment to drag this all up? He seems to be going out of his way to imply that Andrea Ghez didn’t deserve her share of the prize.  Ypu would think someone who had just won a Nobel Prize would be a bit more gracious. And although he doesn’t say it explicitly there is more than a hint that he thinks Andrea Ghez only got her share because she is a woman.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into his words, but I know I’m not the only one to have been “disappointed” by these remarks. I’ve always supported the idea of the Physics Nobel Prize primarily on the grounds that it gets people talking about Physics, which this year’s announcement certainly has done. I just wish this particular interview had been more focussed on celebrating the science than on scoring points over his co-winner.




Level 5 Holiday Weekend

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , , on October 24, 2020 by telescoper

The last Monday of October (Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair), aka the Halloween Holiday (Lá Saoire Oíche Shamhna), is a national holiday in Ireland so I’m currently in Bank Holiday weekend mode.

Tougher (Level 5) Covid-19 restrictions came into play at Midnight on Thursday so I guess I’ll be spending most of this weekend time at home, but that’s OK. It will be a chance to recharge the old batteries.

I’ll also have time to read the big booklet that arrived in yesterday’s mail.

This new regime is not at all like the first lockdown in March but my main worry is about compliance. The vast majority of people have behaved sensibly throughout the pandemic but enough haven’t to create a very worrying situation. I’m concerned that those people who flouted the Level Three restrictions will flout Level Five too, but we’ll see.

Last night we resumed the “virtual pub” night on Zoom with former colleagues from Cardiff, which went into abeyance when actual pubs reopened there. Wales has now gone into a stricter lockdown too, for at least 17 days. I think England will probably follow soon.

Anyway today’s tasks are: (i) to activate my home internet and (ii) to avoid reading work emails using it.

I arranged to have the router box etc delivered yesterday. The courier texted me in the morning to say they would deliver between 2pm and 4pm. I had a lecture scheduled from 12 to 1 so I went on campus, did the webcast from my office, and returned home by about 1.30. I waited there until almost 6pm and then gave up and went to buy beer and pizza.

When was coming back with the goods my next door neighbour saw me and came around with the package. The courier had arrived at my house at 11am and discovering that I was not in, had left it with her. No note at my house. No text or phone call to my mobile to say they’d been.

Nightline is the name of the courier company. They wasted a whole afternoon of my time. The driver also forged my signature in the process, surely a criminal offence?

Open Access, but at what cost?

Posted in Open Access with tags , on October 23, 2020 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist passing on the news that the Max Planck Digital Library has signed an agreement with the Nature Publishing Group to enable authors in about 120 German institutes to publish Open Access articles in Nature journals.

That’s the set up, now here’s the punchline.

Each paper published in this way will cost the authors – or more accurately the authors’ institutes and/or research grants – the sum of €9,500.

No that’s not a misprint. It’s about $11,200, or about £8600. For each paper. Typical article processing charges in the range of $2000 or so are already out of all proportion to the cost of publishing scientific papers; at this level they are simply ridiculous. Recent experiences suggest these charges are out of all proportion to the quality of the editorial process too!

The person who negotiated the arrangement, Ralf Schimmer, Head of Information at the MPDL seems to think it is a good deal. It’s certainly a good deal for Nature Publishing Group, but to anyone else it’s yet another egregious example of profiteering by the academic journal industry. The Academic Journal Racket strikes again!

Why is that so many academics and learned societies fail to see the extent to which they are being ripped off by these publishers? The only explanation I can think of is that it is the same reason why some people pay to produce vanity publications…

Maynooth University Library Cat Update

Posted in Maynooth with tags on October 22, 2020 by telescoper

As we enter a six week period of Level 5 restrictions in Ireland I thought I’d post a quick update about Maynooth University Library Cat just to reassure readers that he is doing fine.

Yesterday I passed by his post on the way to my 2pm lecture in Physics Hall, the last such lecture I’ll be giving in that location for at least six weeks. I found him having a post-prandial wash having just scoffed the food on the bowl on the wall to the right. He is clearly in good health. I noticed that he has a plentiful supply of food (see the box to the bottom left) so he’s well set. In any case he won’t be as isolated on campus as in the earlier lockdown in March as a significant number of staff and students are still on campus and several buildings remain open this time, which was not the case before.

R.I.P. James Randi (1928-2020)

Posted in LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 22, 2020 by telescoper

Yesterday I heard the sad news of the death, at the age of 92, of stage conjuror, humanist and famous debunker of charlatans, James Randi.  I guess quite a few of my readers won’t have heard of him, but he was a really interesting character. His real name was Randall James Hamilton Zwinge and he was born in Toronto. He was a professional magician (i.e. a conjuror) with the stage name “The Amazing Randi” who spent most of the last four decades debunking psychics and exposing fraudulent claims of the paranormal. Those of you out there old enough to remember the 1970s will recall the  “paranormalist”  Uri Geller being a household name for his numerous TV appearances bending spoons, stopping clocks and generally exhibiting supernatural powers. Randi exposed these as simple conjuring tricks, and got himself sued for his trouble.

There’s an interesting connection between the Uri Geller phenomenon and physics. In the 1970s, when Geller was at the height of his popularity, a physicist called John G. Taylor took great interest in him and the things that he appeared to be able to do. Professor of applied mathematics at King’s College, London, Taylor was (and remains) a very distinguished scientist and was the first to take the paranormal phenomena displayed by Geller seriously. When Uri Geller visited Britain in 1974, Taylor conducted scientific tests of Geller’s feats of metal bending using all the paraphernalia of modern science, including a Geiger counter. Taylor also experimented with some of the children and adults who claimed to manifest psychic abilities after seeing Uri Geller’s appearances on British television programs. Taylor’s interest in such phenomena was not only in its scientific validation, but also in investigation of the way in which such phenomena take place and the nature of the forces involved. He suggested the phenomena may be some low-frequency electromagnetic effect generated by human beings.

Through the 1970s Taylor was regarded as fully endorsing the paranormal metal bending of Uri Geller, but gradually has made more guarded statements; then in 1980 he largely retracted his support for Geller’s paranormal talents. In 1974 he wrote

The Geller effect—of metal-bending—is clearly not brought about by fraud. It is so exceptional it presents a crucial challenge to modern science and could even destroy the latter if no explanation became available.

Taylor then spent three years of careful investigation of such phenomena as psychokinesis, metal bending, and dowsing, but could not discover any reasonable scientific explanation or validation that satisfied him. He was particularly concerned to establish whether there is an electromagnetic basis for such phenomena. After failing to find this he did not believe that there was any other explanation that would suffice. Most of his experiments under laboratory conditions were negative; this left him in a skeptical position regarding the validity of claimed phenomena.

In contrast to the endorsement in his first book, Superminds, he published a paper expressing his doubts in a paper in Nature (November 2, 1978) titled “Can Electromagnetism Account for Extra-sensory Phenomena?” He followed this with his book Science and the Supernatural (1980) in which he expressed complete skepticism about every aspect of the paranormal. In his final chapter he stated:

We have searched for the supernatural and not found it. In the main, only poor experimentation [including his own], shoddy theory, and human gullibility have been encountered.

Taylor’s investigation of the Geller effect is interesting because it shows that physics doesn’t have all the answers all the time, particularly not when the phenomena in question involve people. Physics research proceeds by assuming that Nature is not playing tricks, and that what can be measured must represent some sort of truth. This faith can be easily exploited by a charlatan. James Randi always argued that scientists aren’t the right people to detect tricks performed by people: this is best left to tricksters. There’s no reason to believe that a theoretical physicist – no matter how brilliant – can spot the way a clever deception is carried out. The best person to see that is a magician, someone like James Randi. Set a thief to catch a thief, and all that…

I wrote a blog post about James Randi about a decade ago because it was not until then, when he had reached the age of 81 that he revealed to the public that he was gay. I feel a bit sad that took him so long to step out of the closet, but I’m sure he was glad he made the decision. From wikipedia I learn that he married his partner José Alvarez in 2013. I hope their time together was happy, and send my condolences to José  on his loss.

Rest in peace, James Randi (1928-2020).

A Question of Phosphine

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 21, 2020 by telescoper

Remember all the excitement last month about the claimed detection of phlogiston phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus?

Well, a wet blanket appears to have been thrown over it by a new paper on the arXiv by Snellen et al. Here is the abstract:

The conclusions are very clear, but the paper hasn’t been refereed yet. Let’s see what the authors of the original work have to say. For myself, I think a proper (i.e. Bayesian) analysis of the data is called for…

I should also mention in this context another paper on the arXiv from a few days ago, which uses a null detection to place an upper limit on the phosphine abundance.

Note that one of the authors of this second paper is Jane Greaves, who was on the original discovery paper.

Life at Level Five

Posted in Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , on October 20, 2020 by telescoper

After refusing to do so two weeks ago, last night the Government decided to move all Ireland onto Level 5, the highest level of Covid-19 restrictions, for six weeks (although with some tweaks, e.g. the number of people allowed to weddings):

I think the previous refusal to implement tougher restrictions was a big mistake and has cost two weeks of exponential growth in new cases for no obvious benefit. I thought at the time that moving to Level 5 was inevitable giving the steep growth in numbers:

Here, for information is the latest plot of confirmed cases (as of last night):

The 7-day average of new cases is higher than it was at April’s peak, though thankfully the number of deaths is lower. Hospital (and specifically ICU admissions) are however, rising steadily.

We don’t know yet of any specific implications for teaching here at Maynooth University, though it will certainly mean even more teaching moves online. I think my own lectures will continue as Panopto webcasts in much the same way as before, except from my office rather than from a lecture theatre and without the handful of students who have so far been attending them in person. Next week (beginning 26th October) is our Study Week break which offers a bit of time to rearrange things. My first-year module has lectures on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Because the new restrictions kick in at midnight on Wednesday, that lecture will be the last one I do in a lecture theatre for a while. At least I got the best part of four weeks’ worth of lectures in that way.

More generally workers are required to work from home if they can with an exception for “essential services”. The general guidance given here includes:

11. The following services relating to professional, scientific and technical activities:

(a) the provision of engineering, technical testing activities and analysis (including the performance of physical, chemical and other analytical testing of materials and products);

(b) the provision of scientific research and development services;

(c) regulation, inspection and certification services, in accordance with law, of a particular sector by a body created by statute for that purpose.


16. The following services relating to education activities:

(a) primary and post primary school;

(b) higher and further education, insofar as onsite presence is required and such education activities cannot be held remotely.

This implies that the campus will not be closed like it was in March, so that this is not going to be a complete lockdown for either research or teaching. Moreover 16(b) does suggest that even laboratory-based teaching may carry on, but we await confirmation on that.



Goodbye, John

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on October 19, 2020 by telescoper

Today, along with many other friends and colleagues, and members of his family I attended (via Zoom) the funeral of my thesis supervisor Professor John D Barrow who passed away on September 26th. This was my first experience of a funeral by Zoom and it felt very strange sitting in my office watching the proceedings. I had a quick look at the list of participants and saw many names I recognized. I suspect many of them were taking a short break from work too. The list was long, so it was a good turnout, virtually speaking. At least some of the closest family members were able to be there, at Westminster College in Cambridge, to pay tribute. The Astronomy Royal, Lord Rees, was also present and he gave a characteristically eloquent eulogy.

Not being of the Christian faith I didn’t participate in the prayers, but as the coffin was carried out at the end for the committal I found myself saying out loud “Goodbye, John”. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank John’s family, especially Elizabeth, for giving me this chance to say goodbye.