Archive for the Biographical Category

The Tenth Anniversary of the Herschel/Planck Launch

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 14, 2019 by telescoper

A little birdie told me (via a tweet) that today is the 10th anniversary of the launch of the ESA Planck and Herschel satellite missions. Can it really be so long ago?

Anyway, both were superbly successful and both involved many friends and former colleagues from Cardiff and elsewhere, so I thought I’d reblog this post which I wrote on the day of the launch (on May 14 2009)….

In the Dark

The Big Day has finally arrived!

I’ve managed to submit my paper to the journal and the ArXiv before the little shindig we’ve been planning for the Planck and Herschel launch gets under way at 1pm. Business as usual so far, though.

Strangely, I haven’t managed to get nervous yet, although I have to say  there are many anxious faces around the department. I just keep telling people how much simpler their life is going to be if it all goes wrong, without all that messy and unnecessarily complicated data to deal with. It bothers me sometimes that I don’t often get nervous expect when watching sport. Mind you, being  a Newcastle United supporter probably makes me more nervous more often than most people.

Anyway, at times like this a  stiff upper lip is obviously called for. Anyone who cracks now is clearly not officer material. There’ll be plenty of…

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Dreaming and Screaming

Posted in Biographical with tags , on May 10, 2019 by telescoper

A few weeks ago I had a very bad dream and, unlike most dreams I have, I didn’t forget it immediately afterwards. In fact I keep thinking about it, although it hasn’t recurred. I’m not sure why I decided to share it here, but here goes..

In the dream I am giving a lecture using a blackboard in a lecture theatre to a group of students. The lecture theatre isn’t a specific room that I remember and the students in the audience are not people that I recognise at all.

Anyway, I’m busy talking when the door at one side of the front of the theatre opens to reveal not the standard corridor that you would expect alongside a lecture theatre a university building but a very long corridor leading off into the distance.

I pay little attention and carry on lecturing. A few moments later I look out along the corridor where, off in the distance, there is a very dark object. It’s very far aware and I can make out no details. I turn my attention back to the lecture.

This happens several times, and each time the shape is closer to the doorway to the lecture theatre. It remains indistinct in shape. No arms or legs or head, just a sort of black blob. It is not sharply delineated around the ages nor does it suggest any sense of depth. It’s like someone has painted something a very dense black into the air. It’s not obvious even how it moves as it does not appear to be on the ground and seems still every time I look at it, but each time I look away and look back it has moved closer. I am getting more and more frightened.

Eventually the shape is in the doorway, about to enter the room, and I’m now completely terrified. I look at the audience in the lecture theatre and they have all gone away. There’s just me and the thing.

As I watch, the thing enters the room. At this point I decide to run away, but I can’t move. I try again but I’m rooted to the spot. I scream, but I can make no sound. The thing moves closer. And closer.

Eventually, with the thing just a few feet away, my attempts to scream succeed. I screech at the top of voice.

At this point I woke up with a start. I’m pretty sure that I really did scream in my sleep and it was that noise that woke me up. I hope I didn’t wake up my neighbours! My heart was pounding and I was sweating. There being no possibility of going back to sleep, I got up and had a glass of water. It was about 4am. I didn’t sleep any more that night.

I’m by no means an expert in the interpretation of dreams but on the occasions when I can remember what I’ve dreamed about it always seems to be a weird juxtaposition of things I’ve experienced in the previous day or two.

My interpretation of this sort of thing is that during a dream the sleeping brain is sifting through recent experiences and relating them to others, including recent events and things lodged in long-term memory. If I’m right, then this kind of dream is basically a by-product of the workings of a sort of subconscious filing system.

There are other kinds of dream, of course, and they don’t always fit into this pattern. In my experience the majority don’t make any sense at all, so I won’t say any more about that class. I don’t know how many people have regular recurrent dreams, but I do; these are of two types. The first is a standard `anxiety’ dream. I could be sitting in an orchestra on the stage of a concert hall, or some similar situation. I have a musical instrument in my hands and am dressed for the part, like all the other musicians. It is shortly before the performance is due to start. The problem is that I don’t actually know how to play the instrument. Time is ticking away and I’m soon to be found out. How do I escape?

The second type of recurrent dream is harder to fathom. I’ve moved around quite a lot during my career. In this kind of dream I’m supposed to be back in one of the places I used to live, but it’s curiously different from what it was like in reality. One example involved me being back in my old flat in Bethnal Green. Exploring the place I took a nice walk through the French windows and into the garden. Trouble is, the flat didn’t actually have French windows or a garden. How could it? It wasn’t even on the ground floor…

Anyway it seems obvious that the black thing in the corridor represents some sort of anxiety, a kind of variation of the type I mentioned above, but I’m intrigued by the fact that it had no discernible form. It was just a pool of blackness. It wouldn’t have made a very impressive monster in a horror film, but it was certainly terrifying.

Now, would any psychoanalysts out there like to interpret this for me?

With Strings Attached?

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on May 6, 2019 by telescoper

Image Credit: Flickr user Trailfan.

I was flicking through various posts on the interwebs this morning while I was having my breakfast and came across one that nearly made me choke on my muesli. What it’s like to be a theoretical physicist is a piece in Stanford University news. In it I found the following quote:

String theory feels like a little superpower that I have, this physical intuition that enables me to make connections and have insights into things that by rights I should not be able to say anything interesting about.

I’ve tried many times that in a way that doesn’t come across as arrogant, but I’m afraid I’ve failed – especially because (speaking as a physicist) I don’t think string theory has so far given us any profound insights into physics at all.

Now I’m mindful of the fact that many mathematicians thing string theory is great. I’ve had it pointed out to me that it has a really big influence on for example geometry, especially non-commutative geometry, and even some number theory research in the past 30 years. It has even inspired work that has led to Fields medals. That’s all very well and good, but it’s not physics. It’s mathematics.

Of course physicists have long relied on mathematics for the formulation of theoretical ideas. Riemannian geometry was `just’ mathematics before its ideas began to be used in the formulation of the general theory of relativity, a theory that has since been subjected to numerous experimental tests. It may be the case that string theory will at some point provide us with predictions that enable it to be tested in the way that general relativity did. But it hasn’t done that yet and until it does it is not a scientifically valid physical theory.

I remember a quote from Alfred North Whitehead that I put in my PhD DPhil thesis many years ago. I wasn’t thinking of string theory at the time, but it seems relevant:

There is no more common error that to assume that, because prolonged and accurate mathematical calculations have been made, the application of the result to some fact of nature is absolutely certain.

My problem is not with string theory itself but with the fact that so many string theorists have become so attached to it that it has become a universe in its own right, with very little to do with the natural universe which is – or at least used to be – the subject of theoretical physics. I find it quite alarming, actually, that in the world outside academia you will find many people who think theoretical physics and string theory are more-or-less synonymous.

The most disturbing manifestation of this tendency is the lack of interest shown by some exponents of string theory in the issue of whether or not it is testable. By this I don’t mean whether we have the technology at the moment to test it (which we clearly don’t). Many predictions of the standard model of particle physics had to wait decades before accelerators got big enough to reach the required energies. The question is whether string theory can be testable in principle, and surely this is something any physicist worthy of the name should consider to be of fundamental importance?


P.S. This rant reminded me of the time I got severely told off by a very senior British physicist (who shall remain nameless) when I was quoted in Physics World as saying that I thought that in a hundred years time string theory would be of more interest to sociologists than physicists…

Bealtaine and a Vicennial

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , on May 1, 2019 by telescoper

This morning I found that today is called Beltane (Lá Bealtaine in Irish) an old Celtic festival that marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. According to my calculations that should be May 6th, but that’s close enough I suppose. Anyway, let me offer a hearty `Lá Bealtaine sona daoibh‘!

Today is also the twentieth anniversary of the first broadcast by RTE Lyric FM which first went on air on May 1st 1999. Since I moved to Ireland in 2017 I’ve been a regular listener to Lyric FM in the mornings and evenings. I particularly enjoy the eclectic mix of music played by John Kelly on Mystery Train followed by Bernard Clarke on The Blue of the Night during the week. Both are very knowledgeable presenters who are happy to play rare and unusual music and to respond to inquiries about the music played. Bernard Clarke has even played a couple of requests of mine, both of them jazz records. During the late evenings at the weekend I listen to Ellen Cranitch whose show Vespertine is `a night-time voyage, crossing time and space to share a selection of classical, jazz, roots and contemporary music’. You never quite know what’s coming up next on any of these programmes.

Anyway, there’s a big gala concert happening tonight at the National Concert Hall in Dublin by way of a vicennial celebration. I didn’t get my act together to buy a ticket, but I’ll be listening on my wireless at home. Possibly with a glass or several of wine.

When Lyric FM was launched on 1st May 1999 I had recently moved out of London to Nottingham where I had my first Professorship. Since then I moved to Cardiff, then to Sussex, back to Cardiff, and then to Maynooth. I bet quite a lot has happened to the radio station too!

Back to Sunny Ireland

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on April 22, 2019 by telescoper

Well here I am, back in Maynooth, after a week’s restful leave in Cardiff. The weather here is just as nice as it was in Wales when I left yesterday: sunny and about 20 degrees. I’m enjoying the warm weather very much indeed, as my arthritis seems to have eased off considerably.

I was planning to return to Ireland today (Monday) but the flights were far cheaper yesterday. The plane I took yesterday (Sunday) less than half full. Incidentally, after their recent rescue and restructuring FlyBe have announced that after this summer they will no longer operate jets from Cardiff. Flights to Dublin will therefore be by their smaller Bombardier turboprops rather than the Embraer aircraft that I took yesterday.

Today is a Bank holiday in Ireland, as it is in the UK, but after that the Easter break is over; I’m officially back to work tomorrow. This semester will have been divided into three pieces, firstly by the half-term study week (around St Patrick’s Day) and now by a one-week Easter break. Last year these two breaks were contiguous, but Easter is quite late this year so they are separate this time.

Anyway, we now have three weeks of teaching left followed by the May examination period and, of course, the inevitable Marking of the Scripts.

The three remaining weeks include two Bank Holiday Mondays including today, Easter Monday, and the May Day Holiday on 6th May). I have lectures on Mondays I will miss two sessions, leaving only seven lectures remaining for Engineering Mathematics. I’d better make sure that in the short time remaining I cover everything that is in the examination!

Anyway, although it’s a holiday I’ve got to get my lecture together for tomorrow morning so I’d better get to work. It’s a shame not to be out and about in the sunshine but there you go. That is the price you pay for having a week off. No doubt there is a ton of emails to reply to as well; I’ve tried not to look at my inbox while I’ve been off. I’ve made that a rule for holidays now: put the out of office message on and leave the email alone!

The Arthritic Cosmological Principle

Posted in Biographical with tags , on April 7, 2019 by telescoper

When I attended a meeting recently quite a few people expressed concern about my health given that I turned up with a walking-stick. I’ve actually been using one on occasions for quite a few months now, and it may well become a regular accessory, so to avoid anyone else I meet wondering what’s going on I thought I’d post a brief explanation.

Over the past six months or so I’ve had an increasing problem with swelling and stiffness in my knees. This is worst in the morning when I’ve just got out of bed, in which situation my knees are invariably bright red.

You can see what I mean in the picture here (viewer discretion advised). The stiffness sometimes makes me a bit wobbly on my pins and makes it a bit tricky dealing with stairs. I use the stick more for balance than anything else, and once I get going I can walk quite comfortably. I spent most of a day walking around Copenhagen without ill effects when I visited there in February.

I’ve been to the doctor several times about this and, although I’m still waiting for various test results, it’s clear that I have some form of arthritis. For the time being I’m just taking an anti-inflammatory drug which is quite effective at reducing the swelling. In due course I may be put on other medication, possibly involving a course of injections, and maybe even surgery. I’ll just have to wait and see about that.

The important thing is that, although I’m not exactly thrilled to have arthritis, I’m not in any real pain. It’s just a bit uncomfortable, that’s all, though that does make it hard to concentrate sometimes and it has impacted on my capacity to work long hours. I am sorry that I have missed some deadlines as a result.

You may or may not know that I used to run a lot when I was younger, including a few marathons and half-marathons. This has caused me some problems with my knees before, and I had minor surgery (arthroscopy) about 15 years ago to help with this. That procedure went pretty well, but I was warned that I was a relatively high risk for arthritis. It looks like the doctor wasn’t wrong! My running days are well and truly over, that’s for sure.

One other thing worth mentioning is that this condition does seem to be highly temperature-dependent. This last week the weather suddenly turned a lot colder and the arthritis definitely got worse. Perhaps in future I could learn to use the colour of my knees as some kind of forecasting method?

160 Years of the Irish Times

Posted in Biographical, Crosswords, Politics with tags , , on March 30, 2019 by telescoper

With all the shenanigans surrounding yesterday’s non-Brexit Day I quite missed the news that March 29th 2019 was an important for my newspaper of choice, The Irish Times, which was first published on March 29th 1859, the front page of which is reproduced above. Initially The Irish Times was only published on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays but it became a daily paper a few months after its launch, in June 1859.

The first edition promised to

make a first-rate Irish newspaper, complete in its details, sagacious and consistent in its policy and faithfully reflecting the opinions of the most independent, intelligent and truly progressive portion of Irish society.

That pretty much applies to it now, I’d say. Interestingly, though, it started out as a staunchly Unionist paper and every one of its editors until 1986 was a Protestant.

I don’t buy a paper every day but I do always get the Weekend Edition, which is full of excellent writing (even if often disagree with its take on various things).

It’s interesting to note that the front page of the first edition was dominated by goings-on in the House of Commons in Westminster, as is today’s edition. Plus ça change..

The only real drawback to the Irish Times is that it doesn’t have a very good cryptic crossword. Fortunately, the UK papers give theirs away for free so I now do the Financial Times, Guardian and Observer Prize Crosswords without buying them.