Archive for the Biographical Category

Ceci n’est pas un restaurant

Posted in Biographical with tags , on May 11, 2021 by telescoper

If you are among the several people who follow this blog on my Facebook Page then I apologize for any confusion caused by the fact that Facebook appears to have decided that I am a restaurant:

I wish to point out for the record that I am not a restaurant and therefore am not available at any time for delivery, and only in certain circumstances for pick-up.

I hope this clarifies the situation.

Mark Zuckerberg is 36.

First Shot of Comirnaty!

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on May 11, 2021 by telescoper

So here I am, then, back home from the CityWest Convention Centre where I had my first shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is actually called Comirnaty. The vaccination centre was very busy (with parking quite a long way from it) so it took a little longer than anticipated to get in and out, but only by 45 minutes instead of the expected 30 so nothing at all to complain about.

They don’t allow photography inside the place, which is a huge theatre/auditorium, though only the floor space is used for this purpose. There was quite a lot of queueing: first for an ID check, then to register, then to get the jab. The lady in front of me in the queue said it was like Ryanair, but it rather reminded me of one of those laboratory experiments with rats. Most people were very relaxed and happy to chat while waiting, but one or two seemed very anxious. That had probably been anticipated and there were friendly faces on hand to help calm people down if there were signs of distress. Not everyone likes crowds and not everyone likes needles, and no doubt for some the combination of the two is especially difficult.

Quite a lot of the people running the show were members of the Irish Defence Forces, including the guy who gave me my jab. After that I adjourned to the crossword-solving area for the mandatory 15 minutes of observation, before heading out and back to the car for my lift back home.

So there I am, phase one complete. No side effects so far but it’s too early for that just now anyway. Thanks to all the on-site staff – many of whom are volunteers – for being so friendly and well-organized. See you again in due course for the second shot!

UPDATE: 12th May 2021. It’s now 24 hours since my first dose and thankfully I can report no ill effects whatsoever. The leaflet I’ve got does say that a reaction is more likely after the second dose than the first, but so far so good!

Cosmology and the Born-Again Bayesians!

Posted in Bad Statistics, Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 10, 2021 by telescoper

The other day, via Twitter, I came across an interesting blog post about the relatively recent resurgence of Bayesian reasoning in science. That piece had triggered a discussion about why cosmologists seem to be largely Bayesian in outlook, so I thought I’d share a few thoughts about that. You can find a lot of posts about various aspects of Bayesian reasoning on this blog, e.g. here.

When I was an undergraduate student I didn’t think very much about statistics at all, so when I started my DPhil studies I realized I had a great deal to learn. However, at least to start with, I mainly used frequentist methods. Looking back I think that’s probably because I was working on cosmic microwave background statistics and we didn’t really have any data back in 1985. Or actually we had data, but no firm detections. I was therefore taking models and calculating things in what I would call the forward direction, indicated by the up arrow. What I was trying to do was find statistical descriptors that looked likely to be able to discriminate between different models but I didn’t have the data.

Once measurements started to become available the inverse-reasoning part of the diagram indicated by the downward arrow came to the fore. It was only then that it started to become necessary to make firm statements about which models were favoured by the data and which weren’t. That is what Bayesian methods do best, especially when you have to combine different data sets.

By the early 1990s I was pretty much a confirmed Bayesian – as were quite a few fellow theorists -but I noticed that most observational cosmologists I knew were confirmed frequentists. I put that down to the fact that they preferred to think in “measurement space” rather than “theory space”, the latter requiring the inductive step furnished by Bayesian reasoning indicated by the downward arrow. As cosmology has evolved the separation between theorists and observers in some areas – especially CMB studies – has all but vanished and there’s a huge activity at the interface between theory and measurement.

But my first exposure to Bayesian reasoning came long before that change. I wasn’t aware of its usefulness until 1987, when I returned to Cambridge for a conference called The Post-Recombination Universe organized by Nick Kaiser and Anthony Lasenby. There was an interesting discussion in one session about how to properly state the upper limit on CMB fluctuations arising from a particular experiment, which had been given incorrectly in a paper using a frequentist argument. During the discussion, Nick described Anthony as a “Born-again Bayesian”, a phrase that stuck in my memory though I’m still not sure whether or not it was meant as an insult.

It may be the case for many people that a relatively simple example convinces them of the superiority of a particular method or approach. I had previously found statistical methods – especially frequentist hypothesis-testing – muddled and confusing, but once I’d figured out what Bayesian reasoning was I found it logically compelling. It’s not always easy to do a Bayesian analysis for reasons discussed in the paper to which I linked above, but it least you have a clear idea in your mind what question it is that you are trying to answer!

Anyway, it was only later that I became aware that there were many researchers who had been at Cambridge while I was there as a student who knew all about Bayesian methods: people such as Steve Gull, John Skilling, Mike Hobson, Anthony Lasenby and, of course, one Anthony Garrett. It was only later in my career that I actually got to talk to any of them about any of it!

So I think the resurgence of Bayesian ideas in cosmology owes a very great deal to the Cambridge group which had the expertise necessary to exploit the wave of high quality data that started to come in during the 1990s and the availability of the computing resources needed to handle it.

But looking a bit further back I think there’s an important Cambridge (but not cosmological) figure that preceded them, Sir Harold Jeffreys whose book The Theory of Probability was first published in 1939. I think that book began to turn the tide, and it still makes for interesting reading.

P.S. I have to say I’ve come across more than one scientist who has argued that you can’t apply statistical reasoning in cosmology because there is only one Universe and you can’t use probability theory for unique events. That erroneous point of view has led to many otherwise sensible people embracing the idea of a multiverse, but that’s the subject for another rant.

A Vaccine’s Progress

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Maynooth on May 8, 2021 by telescoper

As I mentioned a few days ago, I was able to register for my shot of Covid-19 vaccine on Thursday 6th May, which I duly did. For those of you who haven’t yet registered in Ireland, it’s a straightforward process although you do need a mobile phone as well as an internet connection.

I said in my earlier post that

…I have no idea what that means for when, where or with what I will actually get vaccinated. As with so many things these days we’ll just have to wait and see.

When I registered I was informed that it would be up to three weeks before an appointment would be arranged. Actually, I got a text this morning giving the answers to all three questions I wondered about in that quote, and very interesting they turned out to be!

First my appointment is actually on Tuesday 11th May, just three days from now. The location is Citywest Convention Centre, in Saggart (outside Dublin), and the vaccine I will be receiving is Pfizer/BioNTech.

All three of these pieces of information surprised me: the date (because it is so soon – not that I’m complaining about that); the location (because I was led to believe I would be vaccinated in the County I live in, Kildare, the vaccination centre for which is Punchestown Racecourse, near Naas; Citiwest is in County Dublin); and the vaccine (for reasons I discussed here, I assumed I would be given either the AstraZeneca or Janssen (J&J) vaccine).

Anyway, I’m delighted with the way it has turned out, which means I’ll could well be fully vaccinated by the end of June, depending on the timing of the second dose.

The only (very slight) downside to this is that I was actually quite looking forward to visiting the racecourse at Punchestown as I’ve never been there before and it is an easy journey from Maynooth by bus. The consultant who looks at my knees from time to time is at Naas Hospital, so the trip is a familiar one to me. Citiwest may be marginally closer as the crow flies, but it’s basically inaccessible by public transport from here so I’ll have to get a taxi there and back. The vaccination system here seems to assume that everyone has a car as many of the big centres are in out-of-town locations hard to reach by public transport.

Some people I know who have had this vaccine have reported side-effects and others have experienced none whatsoever. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens in my case. I’ll get my jab in the morning so if I do react badly to it I’ll have an excuse for missing the Faculty Meeting scheduled for Tuesday afternoon!

Notes from the Last Week

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth on May 5, 2021 by telescoper

So it’s Wednesday of the last week of teaching here at Maynooth. I’ve got three lectures today, two on Advanced Electromagnetism and one on Engineering Mathematics, and after that my lecturing will be done for this Semester and indeed this academic year. In fact two of today’s lectures will be revision classes as I’ve finished covering the syllabus in both of these modules.

That doesn’t everything related to teaching is over, of course. Tomorrow we have final-year project presentations to assess and after that the final Computational Physics laboratory. That is really just a  virtual drop-in session as students finish off their mini-projects to be handed in on Friday.

Next week is a study week – so no lectures –  but I’ll be using the time to finish off grading coursework and lab tests ahead of the examinations online timed assessments, which start on Friday 14th May. As it happens I have an examination on that day so will be occupied supervising it and then immediately afterwards marking the scripts (electronically). Then next week I have two further assessments and related marking. That should all be finished by the end of May and we then have Examination Boards and related activities in June.

It’s been a tough year. This Semester in particular seems to have lasted an eternity. It’s been bad enough for the staff but has undoubtedly been worse for the students.

People are already asking about what’s going to happen for the new academic year which starts in September. The only honest answer to that is that is that we have no absolutely idea. The possibilities range from being completely back to normal with teaching in classrooms on campus to there being nothing on campus at all, like at present. Which of these turns out to be the case depends primarily on the rate of vaccination in Ireland during the summer.

Talking of which, I will be to register for my shots from tomorrow (6th May) but I have no idea what that means for when, where or with what I will actually get vaccinated. As with so many things these days we’ll just have to wait and see…

Thoughts on Lá Bealtaine

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on May 1, 2021 by telescoper

Today, 1st May, Beltane (Bealtaine in Irish) is an old Celtic festival that marks the mid-point between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. It’s one of the so-called Cross-Quarter Days that lie exactly halfway between the equinoxes and solstices. These ancient festivals have been moved so that they take place earlier in the modern calendar than the astronomical events that represent their origin: the halfway point between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice is actually next week.

Anyway, any excuse is good for a Bank Holiday long weekend, so let me offer a hearty Lá Bealtaine sona daoibh!

While not excessively warm, the weather is at least pleasant enough for me to have had my breakfast outside in the garden. As I was sipping my coffee I thought how much nicer it is to be in my own home during all this. The one really big positive about last year was that I managed to buy a house and move in during a few-month window when that was possible.

I put up a post last year on May Day that was dominated by Covid-19. I didn’t really imagine that we would still be under restrictions a whole year later, but I didn’t imagine that vaccines would be available so quickly either. Now it seems I will have the chance to register for my shot(s) next week with the view to getting a first dose sometime in June. Possibly.

The precise timing of my vaccination shot isn’t particularly important to me at this point, as it looks like I’ll be stuck at work all summer with no possibility of a holiday (as was the case last year). On the bright side, my three-year term as Head of Department ends after next academic year so there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

Despite the slow progress with vaccination – currently only about 28.5% of the adult population have received a first dose – and the very high case numbers – about 450 per day on average, and not decreasing – Ireland is now entering a phase of modest relaxation. I think this is far too early and that there’s a real risk of another surge here before any kind of herd immunity is achieved. I hope I’m proved wrong. At least it doesn’t look likely to get as bad as India, where the pandemic is truly out of control.

Workwise we have just completed the penultimate teaching week of Semester 2. Monday is a Bank Holiday so we have four days of teaching left, before a Study Week and the start of examinations. The last week will be busy with assessments and other things, though I imagine most lecturers will be doing revision rather than presenting a lot of new material. In the last few classes. That’s what I plan to do anyway.

Examinations Online Timed Assessment start on 14th May. I have three to supervise and then mark so much of the rest of May will be taken up with that, which has to be done before the Examination Boards in June. After that I suppose we’ll find out what our Lords and Masters have in mind for the start of next academic year…

International Jazz Day – A Tribute to Humph

Posted in Biographical, Jazz with tags , , on April 30, 2021 by telescoper

Today is International Jazz Day which gives me an excuse to post this documentary about the late great Humphrey Lyttelton the anniversary of whose death was last weekend; he passed away on 25th April 2008.

I particularly like this programme because, as well as talking about his own career as a musician and bandleader and as brilliant chairman of the panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue, it mentions his radio show The Best of Jazz which I listened to avidly every Monday night and from which I learned a huge amount about the music that I love so much. I taped many of these broadcasts actually, but have long since lost the cassettes. Although his own music was in the mainstream he always played a wide selection of Jazz tracks both ancient and modern on his programme and introduced me to many artists I would otherwise never have heard of.

Vaccination Machinations

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 on April 30, 2021 by telescoper

As Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccination programme stumbles along, well behind schedule, the Irish Government keeps saying – despite all the evidence – that it will meet its target of 82% of the adult population have received a first dose by the end of June. Actually they say that “will either have received or been offered a dose” by then. This may end up with people registering for their shot and being counted if they are given a date to receive it some time later in the year.

As of Wednesday 28th April, 1,067,378 people have received their first dose in Ireland. That will have to increase to to over 3 million to reach the 82% target by the end of June. There is also the fact that only 419,655 have had their second dose so not all the shots delivered in the next two months will be first doses. Looking at the current rate of vaccination, which is around 35,000 per day – it does not seem at all likely to me that it will be possible to hit the target. The Government is claiming 450,000 doses per week in June, which seems not just optimistic but delusional. I hope I’m proved wrong.

Recently the HSE recommended that two of the available vaccines – AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson – can only be given to the over-50s, which is the next cohort due to be allowed to register for vaccination (starting next week) and to which I happen to belong. If the Government is to reach its target it will have to use almost all the shots it receives in the next two months, including AZ and J&J. The problem this poses is: (1) the over 50s are next in line, according to the age-based priority system being implemented; and (2) most of the 600,000 J&J doses coming to Ireland won’t arrive until late June.  The number of people currently unvaccinated in the 50-59 age group is about 550,000. The obvious suggestion would therefore to be to make the over-50s wait for the J&J to arrive.

(Of course the over-50s also qualify for the AstraZeneca vaccine, but I won’t discuss that because the supply of that has been so unreliable that it would seem to me to be unwise to count on it for anything. There’s a strong case for just forgetting about AZ and giving the surplus doses to countries that need them more, e.g. India. I also wish the EU well in its legal case against AstraZeneca for multiple and egregious breaches of contract.)

Anyway, unless the advice on use of J&J is changed, the only way to use most of the J&J doses is on the fifty-somethings whose will have to be delayed in order to wait for the doses to arrive. If the decision is made to do this then I won’t be vaccinated until the end of June or later, even if the promised deliveries arrive on schedule. If J&J are as unreliable as AstraZeneca then I may not be vaccinated until much later. The upshot of this shot is that it is a single-shot, so recipients would count as fully vaccinated immediately.

This would also mean  Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna doses sitting around unused, so there is a case for moving on to younger cohorts to use up these doses until the J&J doses arrive for us oldies. I expect to be able to register for my vaccine next week but it’s anyone’s guess when I’ll actually be able to get my jab. I have even toyed with the idea of going back to Cardiff to get my vaccination there…

I’m pretty much resigned at this stage to having to wait at least another two months to receive my jab, and for that to probably be the J&J vaccine, but the vaccination programme has changed umpteen times during the course of April and it could change again in May. We’ll see. We live in interesting times.



The Definitive Guide to Bird Identification

Posted in Biographical on April 28, 2021 by telescoper
The Definitive Guide to Bird Identification

What with it being the penultimate week of teaching term, today has been full on so I haven’t time for a lengthy post. On very busy days like this I find it quite relaxing watching the birds in my little garden even just for a few minutes in between other things. Over the past few months I think I’ve become quite adept at identifying the various avian visitors so thought I’d share that expert knowledge free of charge with my vast readership via the above graphic.

The State of the Universe Talk

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Talks and Reviews, The Universe and Stuff on April 26, 2021 by telescoper

When I saw the calibre of the other speakers in the Chalonge – De Vega Series organized by Norma Sanchez- including a number of Nobel Laureates – it was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation to give a Colloquium, but there we are. I’m on the list. If you want to attend the Colloquium (via Zoom) you can register for it here. This series was originally named after Daniel Chalonge but was renamed to honour Hector de Vega, who sadly passed away in 2015.

I used to get invited quite often to the famous Norma Sanchez Schools and Conferences in Paris and Sicily (both Erice and Palermo) but then, about a year ago. I was suddenly stopped receiving invitations. I gather that a number of other colleagues have also been abruptly “cancelled” over the years. Anyway it seems I’m back on the list, at least virtually, possibly owing to some form of administrative error.

I remember one year in Erice at the end of a talk I gave (in the OHP/Transparency era) Norma Sanchez, who was meant to be chairing the questions and discussion started writing on my transparencies, crossing out the word “theory” and replacing it with “model”. That event made quite an impression on the audience who thought it was hilarious and people who were there often remind me of it. Coincidentally, I thought of that event when I wrote Saturday’s post. Since the forthcoming colloquium is via Zoom I think I’ll be safe from any such intervention this time.