Archive for October, 2020

R.I.P. Sean Connery (1930-2020)

Posted in Film with tags , on October 31, 2020 by telescoper

Rest in Peace, Sean Connery, a very fine actor in many roles, but above all The One True James Bond..

Stormy Samhain Super Saturday

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth, Rugby with tags , , on October 31, 2020 by telescoper

So we have arrived at October 31st, Hallowe’en or, in pagan terms, Samhain. This, a cross-quarter day – roughly halfway between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice represents the start of winter (“the dark half of the year“) in the Celtic calendar.

Incidentally, Samhain is pronounced something like “sawin”. The h after the m denotes lenition of the consonant (which in older forms of Irish would have been denoted by a dot on top of the m) so when followed by a broad vowel the m is pronounced like the English “w”; when followed by a slender vowel or none “mh” is pronounced “v” or in other words like the German “w” (which makes it easier to remember). I only mention this because I hope to be starting Irish language lessons soon, something I always wish I’d done with Welsh when I lived in Cardiff.

Anyway, it’s a wild blustery day with the wind howling down the chimney of my house in Maynooth sounding like a ghost. At least thanks to the present Level 5 restrictions I won’t have to endure trick-or-treaters this evening. Or will I? Should I sit quietly at home with the lights off again?

Today’s schedule will revolve around the final round of matches in this year’s Six Nations championship. The settled order of nature having been disturbed by Covid-19 back in March it has only just become possible to finish the competition with three games today. Ireland travel to France for the last game this evening, after England play Italy and Wales play Scotland. Ireland currently head the table, but they have a difficult task in Paris: they need not only to win to secure the Championship but to do so by a bonus point because England will almost certainly get a bonus point against a poor Italian side. The Irish press are talking up the national team’s chances of winning handsomely, but it seems to me rather unlikely especially because France too have a chance of the title if they beat Ireland and get a bonus point. Both sides clearly have to attack, which should make for a good contest.

For what it’s worth, my predictions are: Wales to beat Scotland, England to beat Italy (with a bonus point) and France to beat Ireland (but no bonus point). That combination would make England the champions, with France second and Ireland third.

Update: 16.05. Wales 10 Scotland 14. My predictions are not off to a good start. Scrappy, error-strewn game with Scotland’s try from a maul that shredded the Welsh defence the highlight of the game. Bad result for Wales but it is good to see Scotland back as a force to be reckoned with.

Update: 18.45. England improved dramatically after a poor first half, and eventually ran out winners by 34 points to 5. That means their points difference is +44 compared to Ireland’s +38. Ireland need a win by 7 or more points (or with a bonus point) to win the Championship.

Update: 21.00. Half-time France 17 Ireland 13. France leading without having played particularly well, thanks to two big Irish errors. Ireland need to score 10 points more than France in the 2nd half.

Update 22.00. Final score France 35 Ireland 27. France won with a bonus point but not by a sufficient margin to win the Championship, which goes to England, with France second and Ireland third. It didn’t go exactly as I predicted but I wasn’t far off!

El Espectro

Posted in Biographical with tags , , on October 30, 2020 by telescoper

I have quite a friendly name for anagrams, with mixture of fairly common vowels and consonants that can give not only `telescoper’, but such gems as ‘closet peer’, `elect prose’, ‘poles erect’ and ‘tesco leper’. It is only recently however that I have discovered that this also extends to foreign languages, specifically Spanish. The character `El Espectro‘ (un Antihéroe ficticio publicado por la editorial estadounidense DC Comics) is a seasonal example:

It is a shame that Mr Espectro does not look much like me. Admittedly we do have similar physiques but he alas has no beard.

Odds on Trump

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on October 29, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve been busy all day on a secret mission (from the safety of my own home) which left me no time to do a proper post, so I’ll just do a quickie to mention the state of play as the US presidential election approaches.

Although Joe Biden seems to be comfortably ahead in terms of the popular vote, the vagaries of the American voting system do not easily translate into the probability of a win. After all, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016, and look what good that did her!

I looked at odds checker just now and saw the best Bookies odds are Biden 11/20 on and Trump 15/8 against. That’s uncomfortably close given what an appallingly terrible man the incumbent is, but at least 40% of the American electoral don’t seem to mind having a such an item for a president so there’s a significant chance that he’ll win, especially since his campaign has been deploying extensive spoiling tactics to tilt the vote in his favour.

Yesterday I decided that I would follow my usual betting practice and place a wager on the outcome that I don’t want to happen. I did this in 2016. Then Hunting the best odds I could find were 18-5 against Donald Trump. I put a monkey* on, and walked away with £2300 (being £1800 plus my stake) when Trump won.

I followed the same strategy on the Brexit Referendum Day as I felt it in my bones that Vote Leave was going to win. I ended up depressed but compensated to the tune of £1000.

I’m afraid to say I feel the same way now about the likelihood of a Trump victory. Not very scientific, I know, but there you go. This year the odds are a lot shorter and I think I’ll bet a bit less, but I’ll still go for the compensation strategy.

I have never paid much attention to American politics in the past. It is as incomprehensible to me as British politics must be to them. Gore Vidal summed it up for me:

There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party … and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt — until recently … and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.

Although both parties still represent the moneyed classes more than anyone else, but this time the Republican contender is a corrupt narcissist who has already done untold damage to his country. Americans are free to vote for whomever they wish, of course. I don’t have a say, as I’m a foreigner.

Although I find it deeply depressing that this race is even close, I won’t lose any sleep over the election night. I’ll do what I did on the day of the EU referendum: drink some wine, listen to music and then go to sleep. There’s no point in worrying about things that are out of your hands.

(*monkey = £500)

Phosphine on Venus, Water on the Moon, and Hype Everywhere

Posted in Astrohype, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 28, 2020 by telescoper

To continue the ongoing saga of Phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus there’s a very strongly worded paper on the arXiv with the following abstract:

It’s one thing to question or refute another group’s result, but there’s no need to be so aggressive about it. The last sentence of the abstract is particularly unnecessary and reprehensible.

Update: the abstract has now been changed.

There has been a lot of reaction on social media from astronomers and others to the perceived “hype” of the initial discovery by the authors. I watched the press conference at the time and I think the authors spoke very sensibly about their work. Of course just because scientists are sensible that’s no reason to suppose the press will also be sensible and there was undoubtedly a great deal of hype about that result. In my experience hype is more likely to be a result of journalists wanting a sensational story and/or institutional press offices wanting to promote their institution that scientists over-egging their own puddings (though that does happen too).

I don’t mind individual scientists or groups of scientists making fools of themselves. It’s the damage to public trust in science that is the real danger here.

The hostile reaction we see in the above paper is an inevitable manifestation of an environment which encourages runaway self-publicity. This is not the only area in which this sort of toxic behaviour happens. I suppose it is mildly reassuring that it’s not only cosmologists that behave in such a way, but is this really what we want astrophysics to be like? I think we’d be better off leaving the petty point-scoring to the politicians.

Another example of hype this week – also involving a paper in Nature Astronomy – was the discovery of water on the Moon (again). The NASA publicity machine pulled out all the stops in advance of this announcement, only for the actual result to be a damp squib. Water is one of the most abundant molecules in space and I’ve lost track of how many times it has been detected on the Moon already. I suppose it is moderately reassuring that hasn’t suddenly disappeared, but from a scientific point of view it’s not all that interesting. I was particularly disappointed when the result turned out to be water, as I had bet on phosphine…

Could it be that the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is up for a funding review?

Eye on Burlington House

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 27, 2020 by telescoper

Having been forewarned of this story as soon as my copy of Private Eye arrived (this morning, owing to the Bank Holiday weekend) I headed straight to this:

It sounds rather alarming for the Royal Astronomical Society, which is currently accommodated in Burlington House in Piccadilly, but I do remember something similar being in the air not too long ago when I was a Member of RAS Council. The Government of the time threatened to increased rents and everyone involved with the RAS, including its Fellows, was a bit worried but an agreement was struck. Presumably now the leases are up for negotiation again?

It’s worth pointing out a few inaccuracies in the Eye piece.

  1.  “..the six Learned Societies complacently assumed they would continue to pay a peppercorn rent forever”. This is untrue as the rents have been renegotiated before (see above).
  2.  “The Royal Academy is still relatively flush….but the other five are effectively broke”. I don’t know anything about the others but I’d be very surprised if the Royal Society of Chemistry is “effectively broke” given the income from its academic publishing wing. It also has sizeable industrial income, as does the Geological Society. The Royal Astronomical Society has sizeable reserves in the form of a portfolio of long-term investments built up over the 200 years of its existence but it tends not to use them to fund expenditure; its main cash flow is provided again by academic publishing, especially Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This year – the bicentenary of its foundation – is a bit of an exception because it has dipped into reserves to fund a series of celebratory outreach activities.
  3. The description of “vast clubbable tearooms” is inaccurate too. The RAS occupies rather cramped accommodation in one corner of Burlington house. There is a Fellows’ Room but it is rather small. There are staff offices, a (small) lecture theatre and an important historical library. There are also the President’s Apartments (which I have of course never seen).

I wouldn’t put it past this particular Government to kick out the Learned Societies and outsource Burlington House to Serco but even if this does happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  In my view the RAS needs to shake off the fusty image that its current accommodation in what looks like an old museum tends to perpetuate.  It has always been the case that most of the regulars at the monthly Open Meetings in Burlington House are based in or near London, which means many Fellows don’t get the chance to be involved. Would it really be all that bad for the Royal Astronomical Society had to move? They may have to overhaul their finances anyway if their publishing revenues dry up…

Why not use the opportunity to move the Society out of London altogether to a place with a strong astronomical connection, Bath for example, although that would admittedly make it difficult to get to the Athenaeum in time for dinner…

And if “commercial rates” are going to be the thing for Government-owned buildings, shouldn’t the occupant of 10 Downing Street be charged for his accommodation?

 

 

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?