Archive for the Biographical Category

The Threepenny Opera

Posted in Biographical with tags , on March 28, 2017 by telescoper

Yesterday’s announcement of the launch of a new 12-sided pound coin reminded me of the old three-penny bit, which had the same number of sides but a different composition and overall design.

Threepenny bit

The old coin had been around since the 16th century, but was phased out when the United Kingdom switched to decimal currency back in 1971. Youngsters won’t remember the old currency, but a pound used to be divided into 20 shillings, each of which was 12 `old’ pence. A threepenny bit was therefore worth 1/80 of a pound sterling. Other old coins of note were the tanner (sixpence), the shilling (one bob) and the half-crown (‘two and six’, i.e. two shillings and sixpence). There was also a penny (which was a rather large coin), the halfpenny and even the farthing (half a halfpenny). Pound coins didn’t exist in those days, only pound notes. There were also `ten bob’ notes, corresponding to half a pound, which converted to 50p coins on decimalization.

Tomorrow the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which will begin our country’s regression into the past. I can’t help feeling that it won’t be long until go back to the old money too.

Anyway, I have specific memories of the threepenny bit because once, when I was little, I swallowed one and had to go to hospital. Don’t ask me how or why this happened. I didn’t feel particularly unwell but they did an X-ray and there it was, bold as brass, in all its dodecagonal glory. I don’t remember the eventual emergence of the coin but when we went back to the hospital a few days later it had vanished from the radar. Nature had clearly taken its course.

That little episode wasn’t as funny as my cousin Gary, who once had to go to hospital because he got a marble stuck up his nose. In Newcastle the word for a a marble is a `liggy’, by the way. I was with Gary when this happened (!) and ended up going along to casualty with him. He was in some discomfort as we sat in the waiting room, then a rather burly nurse came in. She looked at him carefully, then raised her right hand and delivered a resounding smack on the back of his head, whereupon the liggy stotted out across the floor. Job done.

Data-Intensive Physics and Astrophysics

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on March 27, 2017 by telescoper

One of the jobs I’ve got in my current position (which is divided between the School of Physics & Astronomy and the Data Innovation Research Institute) is to develop new teaching activities, focussing on interdisciplinary courses involving a Data Science component. Despite the fact that I only started work developing them in September last year the first two such courses have been formally approved and are now open for admission of new students to begin their courses in September 2017. That represents a very fast-track for such things as there are many hurdles to get over in preparing new courses. Meeting the deadlines hasn’t been easy, which is largely why I’ve been whingeing on here about workload issues, but we’re finally there!

The two new courses are both at Masters (MSc) level and are called Data-Intensive Physics and Data-Intensive Astrophysics and they are both taught jointly by staff in the School of Physics and Astronomy and the School of Computer Science and Informatics in a kind of major/minor combination.

The aim of these courses is twofold.

One is to provide specialist postgraduate training for students wishing to go into academic research in a ‘data-intensive’ area of physics or astrophysics, by which I mean a field which involves the analysis and manipulation of very large or complex data sets and/or the use of high-performance computing for, e.g., simulation work. There is a shortage of postgraduates with the necessary combination of skills to being PhD programmes in such areas, and we plan to try to fill the gap with these courses.

The other aim is to cater for students who may not have made up their mind whether to go into academic research, but wish to keep their options open while pursuing a postgraduate course. The unique combination of physics/astrophysics and computer science will give those with these qualifications the option of either continuing or going into another sphere of data-intensive research in the wider world of Big Data.

We’ll be putting out some official promotional materials for these courses very soon, but I thought I’d mention them here partly because it might help with recruitment and partly because I’m so relieved that they’ve actually made it into the prospectus.

 

London looking back

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , on March 23, 2017 by telescoper

I thought I’d do a quick post as a reaction to yesterday’s terrible events in London in which four people lost their lives and several are still critically injured. We now know that the attacker was British and that he was known to the intelligence services. He appears to have acted alone and was armed with knives and drove an ordinary car onto the pavement, hitting a number of people before crashing the car and managing to stab a police officer to death before he was himself shot and killed. Whatever his motivations were, it looks more likely on the basis of information currently available that these were the actions of a crazed individual than part of an international terrorist conspiracy. We should, however, avoid jumping to conclusions and wait for the investigation to be completed.

The first thing I want to do is to express my condolences to the families and friends of those who lost their lives. My thoughts are also with those who were critically injured and I hope with all my heart that they will all recover speedily and completely. Physical healing will take time, but they will need help, support and time  to come to terms with the mental trauma too. The same is true for those who were caught up in this attack and received minor injuries or even just witnessed what happened, because they must have been shocked by the experience. I hope they receive all the help they need at what must be a very difficult time.

The second point is that it’s clear that the police and other emergency services acted with great courage and professionalism yesterday. One policeman sadly died, but the swift actions of his colleagues prevented further loss of life. Ambulances, paramedics and members of the public all responded magnificently to care for those injured, and we shall probably find that their response saved many lives too. They deserve all our thanks.

Finally, I noticed a number of ill-informed comments on Twitter from the usual gang of Far-Right hate-mongers, especially professional troll Katie Hopkins, claiming that London was “cowed” and “afraid” because this attack. I don’t believe that for one minute, and I want to explain why.

I lived in London for about eight years (between 1990 and 1998). During that time I found myself in relatively close proximity to three major bomb explosions, though fortunately I wasn’t close enough to be actually harmed. I also concluded that my proximity to these events was purely coincidental…

The first, in 1993, was the Bishopsgate Bombing. I happened to be looking out of the kitchen window of my flat in Bethnal Green when that bomb went off. I had a clear view across Weavers Fields towards the City of London and saw the explosion happen. I heard it too, several seconds later, loud enough to set off the car alarms in the car park beneath my window.

This picture, from the relevant Wikipedia page, shows the devastation of the area affected by the blast.

The other two came in quick succession. First, a large bomb exploded in London Docklands on Friday February 8th 1996, at around 5pm, when our regular weekly Astronomy seminar was just about to finish at Queen Mary College on the Mile End Road. We were only a couple of miles from the blast, but I don’t remember hearing anything and it was only later that I found out what had happened.

Then, on the evening of Sunday 18th February 1996, I was in a fairly long queue trying to get into a night club in Covent Garden when there was a loud bang followed by a tinkling sound caused by pieces of glass falling to the ground. It sounded very close but I was in a narrow street surrounded by tall buildings and it was hard to figure out from which direction the sound had come from. It turned out that someone had accidentally detonated a bomb on a bus in Aldwych, apparently en route to plant it somewhere else (probably King’s Cross). What I remember most about that evening was that it took me a very long time to get home. Several blocks around the site of the explosion were cordoned off. I lived in the East End, on the wrong side of sealed-off area, so I had to find a way around it before heading home. No buses or taxis were to be found so I had to walk all the way. I arrived home in the early hours of the morning.

Anyway, my point is that amid these awful terrorist atrocities of the 1990s, people were not “cowed” or “afraid”. Londoners are made of sterner stuff than that. It is true that one’s immediate response when confronted with, e.g. , a bomb explosion is to be a bit rattled. I’m sure that was true for many Londoners yesterday. That soon gives way to a determination to get on with your life and not let the bastards win. The events of the 1990s gave us a London of road blocks, security barriers and many other irritating inconveniences, but they did not bring the city to a standstill, as some have suggested happened yesterday. For the most part it was “business as usual”.

I don’t live in London anymore, but I think Londoners are as unlikely to be frightened today as they were back then. And it will take much more than one man to “shut down the city”. As a matter of fact, I think only a coward would suggest otherwise.

 

P.S. I forgot to mention another event, in 2005, when I was at the precise location of a bomb explosion but precisely 24 hours early…

 

 

 

My Last Will – by Sir Walter Raleigh (no, not that one…)

Posted in Biographical, Poetry with tags , , , on March 20, 2017 by telescoper

The vernal equinox in the Northern hemisphere passed this morning at 10.29 GMT, heralding the start of spring – a time when naturally our thoughts turn to death and decay. Which is no doubt why I remembered this poem  I came across some time ago but for some reason haven’t posted yet. It’s quite astonishing how many websites attribute this verse to the Elizabethan courtier and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, who was indeed an accomplished poet, but the use of language is very clearly not of that period. In fact this was written by Professor Sir Walter Alexander Raleigh (1861-1922). What he says in this poem about his own untidiness is I’m afraid very true also of me, but the semi-joking tone with which he opens gives way to something far more profound, and I think the last two lines are particularly powerful.

When I am safely laid away,
Out of work and out of play,
Sheltered by the kindly ground
From the world of sight and sound,
One or two of those I leave
Will remember me and grieve,
Thinking how I made them gay
By the things I used to say;
— But the crown of their distress
Will be my untidiness.

What a nuisance then will be
All that shall remain of me!
Shelves of books I never read,
Piles of bills, undocketed,
Shaving-brushes, razors, strops,
Bottles that have lost their tops,
Boxes full of odds and ends,
Letters from departed friends,
Faded ties and broken braces
Tucked away in secret places,
Baggy trousers, ragged coats,
Stacks of ancient lecture-notes,
And that ghostliest of shows,
Boots and shoes in horrid rows.
Though they are of cheerful mind,
My lovers, whom I leave behind,
When they find these in my stead,
Will be sorry I am dead.

They will grieve; but you, my dear,
Who have never tasted fear,
Brave companion of my youth,
Free as air and true as truth,
Do not let these weary things
Rob you of your junketings.

Burn the papers; sell the books;
Clear out all the pestered nooks;
Make a mighty funeral pyre
For the corpse of old desire,
Till there shall remain of it
Naught but ashes in a pit:
And when you have done away
All that is of yesterday,
If you feel a thrill of pain,
Master it, and start again.

This, at least, you have never done
Since you first beheld the sun:
If you came upon your own
Blind to light and deaf to tone,
Basking in the great release
Of unconsciousness and peace,
You would never, while you live,
Shatter what you cannot give;
— Faithful to the watch you keep,
You would never break their sleep.

Clouds will sail and winds will blow
As they did an age ago
O’er us who lived in little towns
Underneath the Berkshire downs.
When at heart you shall be sad,
Pondering the joys we had,
Listen and keep very still.
If the lowing from the hill
Or the tolling of a bell
Do not serve to break the spell,
Listen; you may be allowed
To hear my laughter from a cloud.

Take the good that life can give
For the time you have to live.
Friends of yours and friends of mine
Surely will not let you pine.
Sons and daughters will not spare
More than friendly love and care.
If the Fates are kind to you,
Some will stay to see you through;
And the time will not be long
Till the silence ends the song.

Sleep is God’s own gift; and man,
Snatching all the joys he can,
Would not dare to give his voice
To reverse his Maker’s choice.
Brief delight, eternal quiet,
How change these for endless riot
Broken by a single rest?
Well you know that sleep is best.

We that have been heart to heart
Fall asleep, and drift apart.
Will that overwhelming tide
Reunite us, or divide?
Whence we come and whither go
None can tell us, but I know
Passion’s self is often marred
By a kind of self-regard,
And the torture of the cry
“You are you, and I am I.”
While we live, the waking sense
Feeds upon our difference,
In our passion and our pride
Not united, but allied.

We are severed by the sun,
And by darkness are made one.

 

Wikipedia Update 

Posted in Biographical on March 18, 2017 by telescoper

In case you didn’t realise it, I have my very own Wikipedia page. I don’t know who set it up, or who edits it, but it does seem to get updated regularly. Fortunately these updates are reasonably sensible and generally accurate.

I recently noticed that it has been updated again:

I wouldn’t say it was “pathological”, but it is indeed the case that I don’t like harpsichords (or, to be more accurate, I don’t like the noise they produce).

One day I might edit the page myself, but other than being a cosmologist who hates harpsichords I’m not sure there’s enough else to me that’s worth putting there!

Spring Things

Posted in Biographical, Cricket, Football, Politics, Rugby on March 13, 2017 by telescoper

I’m aware that my posts have been a bit thin recently. This is partly because I’ve had so much to do recently. I know I’m supposed to be working part-time, but that isn’t the way it’s working out. I’m being paid part-time, but without any obvious reduction in workload. Not at the moment anyway, although that’s probably mainly because of a load of deadlines coming together.

The other reason is that I’ve not been very well. On top of other things I caught a bug of some sort in January that laid me pretty low and caused continuous coughing and spluttering but seemed not to be too nasty. The problem is that I just couldn’t shake it off. When I finally started to feel better I immediately got worse again. I think I might have had two different forms of the lurgy in quick succession. Now I seem to be clear of the obvious symptoms, but just generally knackered. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting on a bit, the usual winter flu things are harder to shake off. Or maybe I should have taken some time off, but that would have meant missing even more deadlines…

Anyway, while I’ve been moping around feeling sorry for myself, Spring seems to have arrived.

On the sporting front, the 2017 Six Nations is heading towards its conclusion. With England sure to win the Championship after thrashing Scotland 61-21 on Saturday, all that remains is the question of whether they can round it off with a second successive Grand Slam by beating Ireland in the last match. To show how little I know about rugby, I thought Scotland would beat England on Saturday. I even bet on Scotland to win,  but they never really got out of the blocks and were thoroughly trounced.

There are signs of life at the SWALEC stadium now too. I’ve seen the Glamorgan players practising outside a few times now that the weather has improved a bit. I have joined as a full member this year so hope to be able to get to quite a few of the County Championship games. The fixture list arrived last week, another sign that Spring is here.

On the football side, Newcastle United had three tough away games against rivals for the Championship (Brighton, Huddersfield and Reading). They managed to beat the first two and draw 0-0 in the third, which was a good performance. But then they lost an apparently more straightforward home game against Fulham on Saturday. They’re still top of the table (on goal difference), but could still blow it. There are still nine games left of a season which seems to have gone on for ages already!

And then of course there’s the likely triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by Prime Minister Theresa May, assuming Parliament agrees to give her permission to do so. Then we begin the process of separating ourselves from the European Union. There’s a strong chance this will lead to Scottish independence and, perhaps a few years further down the line, a united Ireland. Holland goes to the polls on Wednesday 15th – the Ides of March – and we’ll see whether the Dutch are as willing to fall for divisive far-right rhetoric as the British and Americans have proved to be. I doubt it, actually, but there have been too many shocks recently to be sure.

On the Importance of School Experiments

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

Twitter drew my attention this afternoon to a series of videos produced by the Royal Society designed to give teachers in schools some additional resources to encourage their pupils to do science experiments. They star the ubiquitous Professor Brian Cox, and they cover a wide range of science. You can see the whole playlist on Youtube here (although it is unfortunately back-to-front):

Although I ended up doing primarily theoretical work in my scientific career, there’s no question that ‘hands-on’ experiments played a big part in the development of my understanding of, especially, physics and chemistry. I remember vividly when I was about 12 years old doing a simple series of experiments in which we weighed out samples of chemical material of various types, then burned it somehow (usually over a bunsen burner) and weighed what was left. Commonsense based on experience with burning stuff like wood and paper is that the process reduces the amount of material so I expected the mass remaining at the end to be less than the initial mass. The first stuff that I did was a few grains of calcium. I couldn’t believe it when the residue turned out to weigh more than the stuff I started with. I was sure I was wrong and got quite upset for failing such an elementary practical exercise, but the same thing happened every time whatever the material.

Of course, the explanation is that the process going on was oxidation, and the calcium was actually combining with oxygen from the air to form an oxide. It did look as if some kind of destruction had happened, but the oxygen taken from the atmosphere had bonded to the calcium atoms and this increased the mass of the residue.

The teacher could have talked about this and explained it, but it wouldn’t have had anything like the impact on my understanding of discovering it for myself.

That’s a personal story of course, but I think it’s probably a widespread educational experience. These days few students seem to have the chance to do their own experience, either because of shortage of facilities or the dreaded ‘Health and Safety’ so I think any effort to encourage more teachers to allow their students to do more experiments is thoroughly worthwhile!