Archive for the Biographical Category

Revisionist (Thermal) History of the Universe

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 10, 2018 by telescoper

Well, today saw my last teaching session on my Cardiff University module Physics of the Early Universe. It was actually an optional revision lecture, during which I went through questions on last year’s examination paper, some matters arising therefrom and some general tips on `examination technique’. The latter included advice that seems obvious – such as `read the question carefully’ and `check your numerical answers’ – but that surprisingly many students seem not to have heard before or, if they have, choose not to follow!

Anyway, I hope the students who came today found it useful and I hope that they (and indeed everyone else taking examinations over the next few weeks) do themselves proper justice and get the results they need for whatever comes next in their plans.

The Physics of the Early Universe paper is a couple of weeks ago so no doubt I’ll get a few more queries to deal with before then.

I thought I’d give an idea of the stuff I’ve been teaching here by including one of the questions from last year’s paper. I thought this was quite an easy one, actually, but the students seemed to find it tricky while they mostly coped well with the other questions, which I thought were harder. One of the challenges of teaching is that it’s often hard to see what other people find difficult! See what you think. You don’t really need to know much cosmology to do this:

Anyway, today was not only the last teaching session for this particular module – it’s also the last teaching session I’ll ever conduct in the UK university system. Best wishes to whoever it is that teaches this module next year when I’m in Ireland.

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Ticket to Ride

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff on May 8, 2018 by telescoper

Although ostensibly based in Cardiff this week I was today required to attend a meeting in London.

This morning I travelled to London Paddington. Inevitably the train was late. The advertised 10 carriage train also turned out to have only 5 carriages and was crammed; there were no seat reservations.

The meeting I attended was quite productive, and I had a nice walk back to Paddington in the warm sunshine.

Now I’m on the return train which also has only five carriages. It seems like Late Western policy to run trains with a short formation in order to maximise the discomfort of passengers. I do not know yet know if we will arrive on time in Cardiff.

My ticket (a one-day ‘off peak’ travelcard) cost £109.10, roughly the cost of two return flights between Cardiff and Dublin.

As a bonus though I got this:

I’ve always wanted to go there, but I’m not sure I want to visit four times. (For those of you not familiar with British geography, ‘Void’ is a place in the Midlands..)

If anyone thinks the pricing of UK train tickets would be reasonable even if the trains ran on time please explain your reasons via the comments box.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the travelling public are being fleeced.

End of Term Thoughts

Posted in Biographical, Finance with tags , , , on May 4, 2018 by telescoper

Today is the last day of teaching term at Maynooth University. My last lecture, a revision lecture, was yesterday morning and I spent most of the afternoon helping students put the finishing touches on their project work, which is due in on Tuesday next week. Next Monday is a bank holiday in Ireland (as it is in the UK), then there’s a short period of private study before the examinations start next Friday. As it happens, the theory paper for the module I’ve been teaching on Computational Physics is on the first day of the examination period.

It’s `Study Week’ in Cardiff next week too, and I have a revision lecture there. Owing to the Monday holiday we’ve juggled the schedule a bit to ensure all modules have a revision lecture so I’m doing my revision lecture on Thursday rather than the usual Tuesday. I have a meeting at the Institute of Physics in London on Tuesday and it’s the Annual General Meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (also in London) on Friday so I’ll be spending all of next week in the UK, in between Cardiff and London. Since teaching is over I’m not planning any more midweek travel (unless it’s absolutely necessary) and intend to spend one week in the UK and one week in Ireland, and so on, apart from conferences and the like, until I fully relocate in July.

I thought I’d mention another thing, which represents a fortuitous bit of timing. Twenty-five years ago, while I was living in London, I took out a savings policy of the sort that involves making a regular monthly payment into a mixture of investment funds. The term of this policy was 25 years, and the maturity date was 23rd April 2018. On a couple of occasions I have been tempted to cash it in early but decided to let it run until maturity. The performance of my chosen funds has fluctuated over the last two and a half decades, but when the price of units drops and you invest a fixed cash amount you end up buying more units than when they’re expensive so if they do recover in value you do well. This is called Pound Cost Averaging.

However, when a policy like this reaches the end of its term the amount you get back depends on the value of the units on the day that it matures. Although my policy wasn’t doing at all well a decade ago, it seems my portfolio (more by luck than judgement) has done well over the last ten years, but with the stock market being rather volatile in the early part of this year it’s been a bit of a white knuckle ride recently. Thankfully the last few weeks seem to have been more stable, and although the units are not at an all-time high in terms of value they were not far off that when they were cashed in. aturity value turned out to be about three times the total amount I’ve invested. I received the money on 30th April, and the proceeds will make a significant contribution to the cost of purchasing a house here in Ireland.

The downside of pound cost averaging is that the final sum is paid in pounds to a UK bank account, and with the pound languishing against the euro there’s now a decision to be made about when to transfer it to Ireland..

Midweek Flight to Dublin

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth on May 2, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve just arrived in Dublin after the last regular mid-week flight I’ll have to make from Cardiff because of teaching commitments. Last lecture of term in Maynooth tomorrow, and after that I can be more flexible about the travel.

I’ve generally avoided evening flights since the introduction of the summer schedules. Budget airlines such as FlyBe work on very tight schedules and delays tend to accumulate throughout the day, meaning that incoming planes needed to make evening flights are frequently very late. Sometimes they get so late the plane can’t fly because of restrictions on night flights, in which case they are cancelled. This is much less likely with an earlier flight in my experience.

So I took a chance this evening but as it happened there were no delays I got safely on the bus to Maynooth and got to my flight at a reasonable hour. The plane, by the way, was only about a quarter full.

The picture was taken shortly after takeoff from Cardiff Airport, with South Wales underneath and Devon in the distance.

The Arithmetic of Relegation

Posted in Biographical, Sport with tags , , , on April 30, 2018 by telescoper

When I got back home after yesterday’s concert, I ate some dinner and settled down to have a look through the Sunday papers. Most of the news was as grim as expected, especially the ongoing fiasco of Brexit, and the scandal engulfing Home Secretary former Home Secretary Amber Rudd who obviously lied to Parliament on at least one occasion. Anyway, turning my attention to the Sports pages there was a write-up of Saturday’s disappointing home defeat for Newcastle United against bottom club West Bromwich Albion. I was gloomy enough to wonder whether Newcastle might actually still get relegated, so looked at the Premiership Table:

Neither West Brom (28 points) nor Stoke (30) can catch Newcastle with only two games to play, but Southampton can in principle get 41 points from here if they win all three games. It’s true that they have a worse goal difference but if Newcastle lost all their three remaining games, and Southampton won all theirs that would change. It therefore looks mathematically possible for Newcastle to be relegated.

However, I then glanced at the fixture list and found that Southampton have to play Swansea in one of their remaining matches. If Southampton win that fixture then the maximum number of points Swansea can get by the end of the competition is 39, so Newcastle can’t be relegated. If Southampton lose or it’s a draw then they can’t catch Newcastle.

I conclude, therefore, that Newcastle United are mathematically safe from relegation. Hooray!

But who will go down? I think West Brom and Stoke will probably get relegated, but I’m not sure about the third team. Huddersfield must be very nervous because their recent form has been poor and they have a very bad goal difference. The betting odds are interesting: BetFred are offering 200/1 on West Brom not being relegated and most bookies are about 8/1 on Stoke to stay up. PaddyPower are quoting 4/9 on Huddersfield and even money on Southampton to go down. If you want to bet on Brighton to get relegated your best odds are with BetVictor who are offering 50-1. Few bookies are quoting odds on West Brom to get relegated, so they obviously think that’s the likely outcome.

I expect these odds to change a lot after the next round of matches.

Project Work

Posted in Biographical, Education, mathematics with tags , , , , , on April 23, 2018 by telescoper

I’m progressively clearing out stuff from my office prior to the big move to Ireland. This lunchtime I opened one old box file and found my undergraduate project. This was quite an unusual thing at the time as I did Theoretical Physics in Part II (my final year) of Natural Sciences at Cambridge, which normally meant no project but an extra examination paper called Paper 5. As a member of a small minority of Theoretical Physics students who wanted to do theory projects, I was allowed to submit this in place of half of Paper 5…

The problem was to write a computer program that could solve the equations describing the action of a laser, starting with the case of a single-mode laser as shown in the diagram below that I constructed using a sophisticated computer graphics package:

The above system is described by a set of six simultaneous first-order ordinary differential equations, which are of relatively simple form to look at but not so easy to solve numerically because the equations are stiff (i.e. they involve exponential decays or growths with very different time constants). I got around this by using a technique called Gear’s method. There wasn’t an internet in those days so I had to find out about the numerical approach by trawling through books in the library.

The code I wrote – in Fortran 77 – was run on a mainframe, and the terminal had no graphics capability so I had to check the results as a list of numbers before sending the results to a printer and wait for the output to be delivered some time later. Anyway, I got the code to work and ended up with a good mark that helped me get a place to do a PhD.

The sobering thought, though, is that I reckon a decent undergraduate physics student nowadays could probably do all the work I did for my project in a few hours using Python….

Cardiff Bound

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 21, 2018 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post using the airport WIFI to fill some time before my flight leaves from Dublin Airport. Once again on a Saturday morning I was up at 5am to get the 6am bus here from Maynooth. The journey back to Cardiff is far from arduous, but I won’t be sorry when I won’t have to do it every week. Fortunately, term is coming to an end and after teaching finishes I won’t be dictated to by the timetables of Cardiff and Maynooth Universities. And after July I won’t have to do the trip at all!

This morning a large group – I believe the correct collective noun is a murder – of crows gathered to give the bus a sendoff. I did think of Hitchcock’s The Birds but the birds in this case were more interested in rummaging through the rubbish bin than attacking any of us waiting for the bus. Incidentally, it was the anniversary of Daphne Du Maurier’s death on 19th April; she wrote the short story on which that film was based.

Anyway, it’s a lovely sunny morning. Yesterday was a nice day too, both in terms of weather and other things. In the afternoon there was a staff barbecue and an awards ceremony at Maynooth University. There was a big crowd already there when I arrived, a bit late because I’d been at a seminar. Standing at the back I couldn’t really hear the speeches. I didn’t win any awards, of course, but I did get a glass of wine and a beefburger.

On my way home I bumped into the President, Philip Nolan, who is the equivalent of a Vice-Chancellor. To my surprise he mentioned a point I had raised in a recent Faculty meeting about the possibility of Maynooth signing up to the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA). To my even greater surprise he went on to say that this was going to be in the University’s strategic plan. Good news!

Anyway, I’d better make my way to the gate.  Have a nice day!