Archive for the Biographical Category

Moving Memories

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 13, 2018 by telescoper

Yesterday evening I suddenly realized that today would be the anniversary of a significant milestone in my life. It was 20 years ago today (on 13th November 1998) that I moved from London to Beeston in Nottingham prior to starting as Professor of Astrophysics at Nottingham University on 1st January 1999. That means I’ve been a Professor for almost twenty years!

I remember it was Friday 13th November 1998 when I took possession of the house I’d bought in Marlborough Road. I picked that particular day to complete the purchase (and sale of my flat in Bethnal Green) because a removals firm offered me a very cheap deal: normally nobody wants to move house on Friday 13th, so they were happy when I turned out not to be superstitious. The move worked out very smoothly, in fact.

This picture taken in the Beeston residence that very day. You can see one of the removal men in the background:

I was still working at Queen Mary until the end of December 1998 so I had to commute to London and back for over a month after relocating, which wasn’t ideal, but bearable knowing that it wasn’t going to last forever, and that from the New Year I would be able to walk into work on the Nottingham University campus rather than trekking by train to London.

I did think leaving London would be a wrench, and that I would probably end up going back frequently to spend time with my old friends and visit regular haunts, but that didn’t really happen, and after living outside the Capital for a while I lost all inclination to ever return. Living in London is great fun when you’re young, but loses its attraction when you’re getting on a bit. That’s what I found, anyway.

It was exciting starting the new job in Nottingham. There wasn’t an Astronomy group as such prior to January 1999, but with the formation of a new group the School of Physics became the School of Physics & Astronomy, and the influx of astronomers helped the School both to expand its research portfolio and become more attractive to students. It was hard work helping to build that from scratch, but I’m glad that it worked out well. It is good to see the Astronomy group and indeed the whole School continuing to prosper, although some of my former colleagues there have now retired.

I moved to Cardiff in 2007 and eventually sold the Beeston house in 2008, after a long delay due to the Credit Crunch, and bought a house in Pontcanna which I still own.

It’s strange to think all that happened 20 years ago. I’ve just finished giving a lecture to our second-year students, most of whom weren’t even born in 1998! And I certainly never imagined back then than in twenty years I’d be living in Ireland!

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On the Naming of the Plimsoll

Posted in Biographical on November 3, 2018 by telescoper

The items of footwear depicted photographically above are usually named ‘plimsolls’, ‘plimsoles’, or ‘pumps’. They were originally developed for use as beachwear way back in the 1830s which is no doubt why, when I was a lad growing up on Tyneside, they were invariably known as ‘sandshoes’.

Recently, however, I have discovered that in Wales (at least in Cardiff) these canvas and rubber shoes are called ‘daps’ and, in parts of Scotland, ‘gutties’. Does anyone out there in the interwebs know any other names for them?

Please let me know through the comments box below..

Halloween in the Dark

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth with tags , on October 31, 2018 by telescoper

Although it’s Study Week here in Maynooth I am back at work for the morning and then this afternoon I have to go to Dublin City University to give a seminar. It’s Hallowe’en, of course, so no doubt there will be weirdly dressed scary people about, but one gets used to that at seminars. I just hope the talk isn’t an unintentionally horrible experience.

Anyway, it’s a whole decade since I posted my first blog about the real horror of Hallowe’en so I’ll take the excuse of a busy day to repeat it here.

–o–

We never had Halloween when I was a kid. I mean it existed. People mentioned it. There were programmes on the telly. But we never celebrated it. At least not in my house, when I was a kid. It just wasn’t thought of as a big occasion. Or, worse, it was “American” (meaning that it was tacky, synthetic and commercialised). So there were no parties, no costumes, no horror masks, no pumpkins and definitely no trick-or-treat.

Having never done trick-or-treat myself I never acquired any knowledge of what it was about. I assumed “Trick or Treat?” was a rhetorical question or merely a greeting like “How do you do?”. My first direct experience of it didn’t happen until I was in my mid-thirties and had moved to a suburban house in Beeston, just outside Nottingham. I was sitting at home one October 31st, watching the TV and – probably, though I can’t remember for sure – drinking a glass of wine, when the front door bell rang. I didn’t really want to, but I got up and answered it.

When I opened the door, I saw in front of me two small girls in witches’ costumes. Behind them, near my front gate, was an adult guardian, presumably a parent, keeping a watchful eye on them.

“Trick or Treat?” the two girls shouted.

Trying my best to get into the spirit but not knowing what I was actually supposed to do, I answered “Great! I’d like a treat please”.

They stared at me as if I was mad, turned round and retreated towards their minder who was clearly making a mental note to avoid this house in future. Off they went and I, embarrassed at being exposed yet again as a social inadequate, retired to my house in shame.

Ever since then I’ve tried to ensure that I never again have to endure such Halloween horrors. Every October 31st, when night falls, I switch off the TV, radio and lights and sit soundlessly in the dark so the trick-or-treaters think there’s nobody at home.

That way I can be sure I won’t be made to feel uncomfortable.

 

 

Another Day, Another Open Access Talk..

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Open Access with tags , , on October 26, 2018 by telescoper

So having exercised my franchise earlier this morning, I found myself in Maynooth University Library giving yet another talk about Open Access publishing as part of Open Access Week.

I’ve got a lecture at noon, which will be the last one I give before the half-term `Study Week’ which begins with a bank holiday on Monday 29th October (Lá Saoire i mí Dheireadh Fómhair). It’s very nice to have a break before Christmas like this. Also the University study week is timed to be the same as School half-term holidays, which is good for those members of staff who have kids of school age.

Well, that’s enough blogging. I need to get my vector calculus notes together. I’m doing line integrals today, by the way

A Letter of Note

Posted in Biographical on October 24, 2018 by telescoper

I often receive unsolicited emails, but one that arrived this evening has the boldest opening sentence of any:

Predictably, however, the rest of the. message fails to provide evidence to support my correspondent’s initial assertion…

The Signs of Age

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 23, 2018 by telescoper

I was feeling very tired yesterday evening and in my vegetative state I suddenly realised that last month I missed a significant personal anniversary. In September 1988, now over thirty years ago I submitted my DPhil thesis at the University of Sussex. Here it is..

It was to be another couple of months until I had my viva (an experience I’d definitely rather forget) so I didn’t get to receive the postgraduate degree formally until the following summer, but at least I finished and submitted within the three years my funding allowed. Incidentally, mine was one of the first generation of theses at the University of Sussex to be typeset in LaTeX. At least I avoided the hassle of having carbon copies made!

The field of cosmology has changed so much in the three intervening decades that I’m sure current graduate students would find my thesis as incredibly simple-minded as I do. There weren’t any measurements of CMB temperature patterns in those days (the COBE results were not announced not until 1992) so I had to generate simulated observations, for example. Still, a few of the things in my thesis have stood the test of time, in the form of papers that still get cited to this day. I was lucky that my research  was in an area that was about to take off, rather than one that was already in decline, and that there will still problems around that were easy enough for me to tackle!

The way of working was very different too: the fact that my generation didn’t have computers on our desks makes younger graduate students wonder how we managed to do anything at all! I still amuse my colleagues with my habit of writing out bits of code in longhand on paper  and `desk-checking’ them before typing them in.

The fact that I now have over 30 years’ postdoctoral experience definitely adds to the feeling of getting very old, along with the all-pervading fatigue, the random aches and pains that afflict me from time to time, failing eyesight, and the tendency of Facebook to send me advertisements about stairlifts, hearing aids, and (worst of all) golf equipment.

The start of University term in late September brings with it a new intake of students that always looks even  younger than the last. That produces a strange alternation of feelings. On the one hand, working in a University means that you’re always surrounded by bright young students which is a good thing when you’re getting on a bit in that it reminds you that you were once like that. On the other, the proliferation of young persons around does force you to face up to how old you actually are.

I remember some years ago I was teaching a module on astrophysics as part of which I did a lecture on supernovae. In the middle of that I said to my class: “of course, you will all remember SN 1987A” (which was detected while I was a PhD student). Blank faces. I then realized that none of them had even been born in 1987. Nowadays it is the case that I was already a Professor when all my undergraduate students were born.

But these signs of age are as nothing compared to the shock I underwent when a few months ago I discovered that I’m older than Nigel Farage.

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 it’s 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!