Archive for the Biographical Category

Return to Cardiff

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on August 15, 2017 by telescoper

Well, I made it back to Cardiff on schedule last night, although that did involve getting home at 2am. I was pretty much exhausted by then so had a bit of a lie-in this morning. I think I’m getting too old for all this gallivanting about. I crashed out soon after getting home and had to spend an hour or so this morning sorting through the stack of mail that arrived while I was away (including some book tokens courtesy of another crossword prize).

I usually try to get to the airport plenty of time in advance when I’m flying somewhere, so got to Copenhagen airport yesterday a good three hours before my scheduled departure. I had checked in online before setting out so I could have left it later, but I’m obviously a creature of habit. As it happened I was able to leave my luggage at the bag drop immediately and it took no longer than 5 minutes to clear the security checks, which meant that I was left with time to kill but I had my iPod and plenty to read so it was all fine.

I was a little disturbed when I got to the departure gate to hear the announcement that `Tonight’s British Airways flight to London Heathrow is operated by Qatar Airways’, but at least it explained why it wasn’t a BA plane standing outside on the tarmac. As it happened the flight went smoothly and Qatar Airways do free food and drink for economy class passengers (unlike BA who nowadays sell expensive snacks and beverages supplied by Marks and Spencer). The only downside when we arrived at Heathrow was that we parked at a remote stand and had to wait 20 minutes or so for a bus to take us to Terminal 5.  I could hear the ground crew unloading luggage while we waited, however, so that meant less time waiting at the carousels…

On previous occasions I’ve been greeted at Heathrow by a packed passport control area, but this time it was virtually deserted. In fact I’ve never seen it so empty. My bag was waiting for me when I got to the reclaim area so I got to the Heathrow Express terminal and thence to Paddington in time for the 10.45pm train to Cardiff.

When I got back to the Data Innovation Research Institute office around lunchtime I discovered that our big screen TV has been installed.


This will of course be used exclusively for skype calls and video conferences and in no way for watching cricket or football or any other inappropriate activity.

Well, I’d better get on. Marking resit exams is the order of the day.




Farvel til NBI

Posted in Biographical with tags on August 14, 2017 by telescoper

I just had my last lunch in the canteen in the Niels Bohr Institute and will shortly be heading off to the airport to begin the journey back to Blighty. It’s been a pretty intense couple of weeks but I’ve enjoyed it enormously and have learnt a lot, even though I’ve done hardly any of the things I originally planned to do!

I haven’t been staying in the building shown in the picture, but in one of the adjacent buildings not shown. In fact my office is directly above the canteen. I took this picture on the way home on Sunday, as I noticed that the main entrance has the date `1920′ written on it. I do hope they’re planning a 100th anniversary!

Anyway, farewell to everyone at the Niels Bohr Institute and elsewhere. I hope to return before too long.

Grave Thoughts Again

Posted in Biographical, History, Literature with tags , , , , on August 13, 2017 by telescoper

This is my last full day in Copenhagen before flying back tomorrow evening, so I decided to take care of some unfinished business by visiting the famous Assistens Kirkegård  in the Nørrebro district of the city. I went there five years ago (almost to the day) but on that occasion I didn’t find the memorial I was looking for, that of the great Heldentenor Lauritz Melchior.

I was surprised to find at the time that his name was absent from the main index, and still doesn’t appear on the maps displayed at the cemetery. Its location is however now on a guide you can find online so I had little difficulty locating it this time round. In case anyone is interested it is in section F, near the western end of the park. Lauritz Melchior was cremated, and his remains interred in a small family plot:

The small slab to the left marks the burial of Lauritz Melchior:

In fact this memorial is not far from that of another famous Dane I missed last time, pioneering physicist Hans Christian Ørsted:

The Hans Christian Ørsted Institute, part of the University of Copenhagen, is a short walk from the main buildings of the Niels Bpohr Institute. It houses Chemistry and Mathematical Sciences and some physicists of the Niels Bohr Institute.

You might think that a cemetery was a rather morbid choice of place to go for a stroll in the sunshine, but actually it’s not that way at all. It’s actually a rather beautiful place, a very large green space criss-crossed by pleasant tree-lined paths. These are poplars:

We British have a much more reserved attitude to cemeteries than the Danes seem to have, at least judging by  their behaviour in this place; joggers and cyclists pass through Assistens Cemetery at regular intervals, and many people were having picnics or just sitting and reading between the gravestones.  I find this matter-of-fact attitude to the dead rather refreshing, actually.

Part of the attraction of Assistens Kirkegård – the name derives from the fact that it was originally an auxiliary burial place, outside the main city, designed to take some of the pressure off the smaller cemeteries in the inner areas – is the large number of famous people buried there, many of whose graves I found last time. I didn’t however notice the large area devoted to common graves nor did I realise that there was a memorial to French and Belgian soldiers of World War 1. Most of these died in 1919, which puzzled me. It turns out that they had been prisoners of war and many of them were ill or injured and had been sent to Copenhagen to recuperate only to be struck down by the Spanish ‘flu epidemic of 1919.

It’s noticeable that some of the smaller graves are extremely well-tended whereas many of the more opulent memorials are in a state of considerable disrepair. I think there’s a moral in there somewhere. My ambition is to be forgotten as quickly as possible after my death so the idea of anyone erecting some grandiose marble monument on my behalf fills me with horror, but I have to say I do find graveyards are strangely comforting places. Rich and poor, clever and stupid, ugly and beautiful; death comes to us all in the end. At least it’s very democratic.

Copenhagen Again

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on August 1, 2017 by telescoper

As you might have inferred from my earlier post, I’m back again in the wonderful city of Copenhagen, as a guest of the Niels Bohr Institute. I’ve been here almost every year since my first visit here way back in the 1980s. I didn’t come here last summer, as I was too busy finishing off my duties at Sussex and relocating back to Cardiff so it’s nice to be back again now. I’m staying in one of the `9 small homes‘ that comprise a hotel near the NBI. I’ve stayed here before though not in my current small home, which is actually a self-contained apartment on the ground floor with its own front door. It’s also got a small kitchen so I can cook for myself when I don’t feel like eating out (like tonight). Incidentally, `hjem’ (the Danish word for `home’) is pronounced exactly as `home’ is pronounced in Geordie (i.e. as `hyem’). I did some shopping earlier this evening and attempted to speak Danish when I paid for my groceries. As always, however, I got a reply in English.

I realised only this morning that it’s a year since I left my previous job. I haven’t done half the things I had hoped to do in the year after stepping down as Head of School, but that’s partly because it took quite a while to get over certain health problems and also because quite a few things have come up that I didn’t anticipate. From what I’m told the old place is doing just fine without me!

Coincidently (?), I have arrived here at the Niels Bohr Institute at precisely the time that there is a delegation here from LIGO and there’s been a lot of serious – but good-natured – discussion of `The Danish Paper‘ that came out some time ago and which questioned some aspects of the data analysis of the first detection of gravitational waves. I think there are still quite a few issues to be resolved between the two groups. Although they do seem to be converging on what’s going on, I don’t think this controversy will be fully concluded until more data are made public, as the currently available time series are not exactly those used in the actual LIGO analysis.

I think this discussion can only be of benefit to the science community in the long run, especially if it encourages LIGO to get more fully into the spirit of open science, by releasing more data for use of researchers outside the consortium.

CMB Spectral Distortions Revisited

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on July 27, 2017 by telescoper

While uploading some bibliographic information for bureaucratic purposes yesterday I noticed that an old paper of mine had recently attracted a number of citations. The paper was written while I was a postdoctoral research fellow in the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex in 1990, but not published until 1991 by which time I had moved to Queen Mary College (as it was then called). The citation history of this article is actually quite interesting:

You can see that it was cited a bit immediately after publication, then endured a long spell from 1997 to 2012 in which nobody seemed interested in it, then experienced something of a revival. It currently has a total of about 49 citations, which doesn’t exactly make it a classic in a field which is extremely active, but it’s nice to see it hasn’t been forgotten entirely.

Here is the abstract of the paper:

As the abstract makes clear we wrote this paper in response to a measurement of the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation by the FIRAS instrument on the satellite COBE that had demonstrated that it was extremely well fitted by a Planck spectrum, with little room for any deviation away from a perfect black-body shape. Here’s the measured curve from COBE and some other experiments at the time:

The accuracy of the fit allows one to place limits on any process happening in the early Universe that might produce a distortion of the spectrum. There are a number of things that could do this. Any energy released in the early Universe takes time to thermalise, i.e. for the radiation field and the matter to come into thermal equilibrium via Compton scattering, double Compton scattering and Bremsstrahlung. Imperfect thermalisation produces a spectrum which doesn’t quite match the Planck curve.

Two types of distortion are possible, both introduced in classic papers from 1969 and 1970 by Rashid Sunyaev and Ya. B. Zel’dovich. One type is called a y-distortion (which corresponds to photons being shifted from low frequency and the other is called a μ-distortion, which is described by inserting a chemical potential term to the usual Planck formula for the black-body spectrum. Observational limits on both forms of distortion are very tight : |y|<1.5 ×10-5; |μ|<1.5 ×10-5, which places stringent limits on any energy release, including that which would arise from the dissipation of primordial acoustic waves (which is what John and I concentrated on in the paper).

So why did interest in this get revived a few years ago? The answer to that is that advances in relevant technology have now made it possible to think about an experiment that can measure much smaller spectral distortions than has hitherto been possible. A proposal for an experiment, called PIXIE, which includes such a measurement, is described here. Although spectral distortions are only a secondary science goal for PIXIE, it could push down the upper limits quoted above by a factor of 1000 or so, at which level we should expect to see departures from the Planck curve within the standard model, which would be a very important test of basic cosmological theory.

That all depends on whether PIXIE – or something like it – goes ahead.


Deep Time and Doggerland

Posted in Biographical, Music, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on July 24, 2017 by telescoper

One of the bonuses on offer during the BBC Proms season on Radio 3 is the opportunity to listen to the fascinating discussions recorded over the road from the Albert Hall at Imperial College and broadcast during the intervals under the title of Proms Extra. Last week (at Prom Number 4) there was a discussion with the title Deep Time, taking its theme from the UK premier of a fascinating composition of the same name by Sir Harrison Birtwistle.

The Proms Extra programme focussed on `Deep Time’ in the sense in which it is used in geological, i.e. time as inferred from rock strata and the fossil record. In the course of the discussion mention was made of Doggerland which is not, as you might imagine, a theme park devoted to outdoor sexual activities, but an area now submerged beneath the North Sea that connected Great Britain to continental Europe during and after the last glacial period. About 12,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene Era, it is thought that the area now covered by the North Sea looked something like this:

(Picture credit: this website). Obviously the cities marked on the map where not there at the time! Britain was connected to mainland at this time, although much of the land mass was under glaciers at the time. At the end of the last ice age the glaciers retreated, sea levels rose and the area once covered by Doggerland was submerged. It is thought that this happened around 8500 years ago. Great Britain has been separated from the continent by less than 10,000 years.

Doggerland gets its name from the Dogger Bank, a huge sandbank off the North-Eastern coast of England which is thought to be a glacial moraine left behind by the retreating ice sheet. The Dogger bank lies about 60 miles from the coast, and is about 60 miles wide by 100 miles long. The water is quite shallow – typically 20 metres deep and is a well-known fishing area. Its name derives from old Dutch fishing vessels called doggers who specialised in catching cod. Here’s a map (from here) showing the Dogger Bank:

When I was a teenager I had the opportunity, with a few friends from school, to go out from Newcastle in a trawler to the Dogger Bank. The skipper insisted that the Dogger Bank was, in places, so shallow that you could paddle around on it with your trousers rolled up. We all believed him, but he was clearly having us on!

The other thing I remember about that trip in a trawler – apart from the all-pervasive smell of fish – was that a bit of storm brewed up on the way home. All my school friends got sea-sick, but I didn’t. That was the first time I realised that I don’t suffer from seasickness. I can enjoy travelling on ships and boats without having to worry about it.

Dogger is of course also the name of one of the sea areas used in the Shipping Forecast: it is East of the coastal area Tyne, South of Forties, North of Humber and West of German Bight. Whenever I hear the shipping forecast on the radio, I always feel a bit of nostalgia when I hear the names of these areas read out.

Anyway, trawlers operating at the Dogger Bank frequently bring up bits of ancient animals (including mammoth and rhinoceros) as well as prehistoric human artefacts, showing that the area was at one time inhabited. I don’t think anybody knows exactly how long it took Doggerland to become submerged, but it may well have involved one or more catastrophic flooding events. If there were people living on Doggerland then,  they obviously had to migrate one way or the other..



Birthday Spam!

Posted in Biographical, History with tags , on July 5, 2017 by telescoper

I am reliably informed that the form of tinned meat known as Spam was first made available to the public exactly eighty years ago today, on 5th July 1937. The product is manufactured by the American Hormel Food Corporation, who own the trademark of the name.

Spam came to Britain largely because of the Second World War, during which food was in very short supply and  it was imported in large quantities via the Atlantic convoys. It was also part of a GI’s standard rations. I have to admit that I haven’t eaten spam for quite a long time, though I had it regularly when I was younger. It was served quite often as part of my school dinner, but I particularly enjoyed it in the form of a spam fritter from the local fish & chip shop:

And, finally, no discussion of spam would be complete without this..