Archive for the Cardiff Category

Quinquennial Reflection

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Covid-19, Maynooth on July 29, 2021 by telescoper

One of the consequences of having written a blog for quite some time is that the back catalogue of posts provides reminders of significant anniversaries, and the opportunity to reflect on them. In this vein I noted that five years ago today, 29th July 2016 (a Friday), was my last day in office as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at Sussex University, a position I had held for three and a half years.

All I really remember of that last day was doing some packing and saying goodbye to some of the people I’d worked with there. I also broke down in tears twice. It’s not easy admitting defeat. Fortunately, it being summer, there were only a few people around to witness the waterworks.

I didn’t tell many people at Sussex of the main reason for my departure. There were work-related reasons – largely intense frustration with certain decisions made by Senior Management – but the main reason was that my Mam had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her decline weighed too heavily on my mind for me to be able to function in that position. Although I think quite a few folk there feel I let them down by leaving before the end of my term, I still think it was the right decision. In fact I don’t think I really had any choice.

Incidentally, in summer 2016 there was a handover at the top of Sussex University. Michael Farthing had been V-chancellor when I arrived and he was replaced by Adam Tickell whom I met only once and only briefly before I departed. Now it seems he is stepping down after his 5-year term to become Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham University. There’ll no doubt be a new VC in post soon.

The first I knew about her final illness was at the end of 2015 when I visited Newcastle for Christmas and noticed how much her memory and behavior had changed. Shortly after that came the official diagnosis. Her condition deteriorated rapidly thereafter as dementia cruelly took hold and in 2018, being virtually completely incapacitated, she had to move into a care home. Fortunately she seemed relatively happy there. In the end it was pneumonia that took her, but at least she slipped away gently towards the end of 2019.

By leaving Sussex to go take up a part-time position, I had a notion that I might be able to help look after Mam, but I found the whole situation too painful and other things got in the way. In other words, I made excuses for myself. I wasn’t strong enough to contribute anything significant and the burden fell almost exclusively on the shoulders of others. I know I’ll never be able to put that right.

Having moved back to Cardiff it seemed my future was settled. I had a part-time position for a fixed term of three years. There was no guarantee (or indeed likelihood) of employment beyond that so I’d reconciled myself to taking early retirement in summer 2019 and disappearing into well-deserved obscurity. I fancied I might try my hand at setting crosswords to while away the time.

Then in 2017 I heard about a job opportunity at Maynooth, applied for it, and much to my surprise was offered it. I decided to accept it for reasons outlined here. I started here in December 2017, initial part-time alongside my part-time position at Cardiff. I resigned entirely from Cardiff in 2018 at which point my job here in Maynooth became full-time.

It seems no sooner I had I settled in as a full-time member of staff than I was made Head of Department of Theoretical Physics and no sooner had that happened than the Covid-19 pandemic struck. That not only increased my workload a lot (as it did for every member of staff) but made the logistics of buying a house and moving my possessions exceedingly difficult. If I’d known there was some urgency I might have been able to do it all in 2019 before the pandemic, but that didn’t happen. I did manage to buy a house in 2020 but my remaining belongings won’t be joining me from Cardiff until next month.

Despite the complications – and workload issues – I don’t regret the move to Maynooth. Whether the University feels the same is another question.

I often think the University would have been better off appointing a more junior Lecturer than a senior Professor given that so much of the workload in my current position involves teaching relatively introductory material and there is consequently very little time for research. Even less than I had at Sussex, actually. I have only published a few bits and pieces since 2017.

On the other hand, I am pleased at the steady progress being made by the Open Journal of Astrophysics and hope to have some further news on this front next month.

In summary, then, it has been a very strange five years altogether. Nothing has really gone the way I anticipated. Best laid plans and all that. The strangest thing, though, is that July 29th 2016 seems in the incredibly distant past. Perhaps that is because so many strange things have happened?

Having learnt a lesson from the last five years I’m not going to make predictions for the next five, nor even the next one! I hope we get through the pandemic sooner rather than later, and I hope the restructuring of Physics at Maynooth enables it to grow and prosper.

Back to Civilisation

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Covid-19, Cricket, GAA, Maynooth with tags , , , on July 24, 2021 by telescoper

So last night I returned safely from Cardiff to Ireland via Birmingham. Travel both ways was relatively uneventful. There can’t have been more than 30 people on the flight in either direction. I did however almost screw up the return flight by omitting to fill in the obligatory Covid-19 passenger locator form which I hadn’t realised is now online-only. I only found out that I had to do it before they would let me on the plane, resulting in a mad scramble with a poor phone connection to get it done. After a few goes and quite a bit of stress I succeeded and was allowed to board, conspicuously the last passenger to do so. We still managed to leave early though, and the short flight to Dublin – passing directly over Ynys Môn was relaxing and arrived on schedule; the immigration officer scanned my new-fangled Covid-19 vaccination certificate but wasn’t interested in the passenger locator form that caused me so much stress on departure.

I returned to Cardiff to take a bit of a break, to check up on my house and also prepare to move the rest of my belongings to Ireland. I was relieved when I got there last week that everything was basically in order, although there were lots of cobwebs and a very musty smell, which was hardly surprising since I hadn’t been there for 15 months. The inside of the fridge wasn’t a pretty sight either.

One night last week after meeting some friends for a beer in Cardiff I walked back via Pontcanna Fields and saw, much to my surprise, Camogie practice in progress in the twilight:

Camogie Practice, Pontcanna Fields, Cardiff.

The logistics of my planned removal proved a bit more complicated than I expected but eventually I cracked it and all the arrangements are now in place. I should receive delivery here in Maynooth next month. I’m doing it on the cheap as a part-load, which is why it will take a bit longer than usual.

Cleaning and packing was very hard work owing to the intense heat over the last week or so – it was regularly over 30° C – during the day, so I took quite a few siestas. My neighbours tell me it’s been much the same here in Maynooth, although it is a bit cooler today, around 20° with a very pleasant breeze.

Despite the hard work it was nice to have a change of scenery for a bit and also to meet up with some old friends from Cardiff days. Everyone has been in a state of limbo for the last 18 months or so, and although we’re not out of the woods yet there are signs of things coming back to life. When I went to Bubs in Cardiff for a drink last week it was the first time I’d been inside a pub since February 2020!

Incidentally, most people I saw observed social distancing, wore masks, etc. The rules in Wales are still fairly strict. Although open for indoor service, bars and restaurants seem to have few customers. Some people on trains to and from Birmingham didn’t wear masks. One group of unmasked and obnoxious English passengers on my return journey were loudly boasting how backwards Wales was compared to England, where the rules have relaxed despite a huge surge in cases. I moved to another carriage.

The only other thing I managed to do was attend a Royal London One-Day Cup match at Sophia Gardens between Glamorgan and Warwickshire in the baking heat of Sophia Gardens. It turned out to be a good tight game, with Glamorgan winning by 2 wickets courtesy of two consecutive boundaries. Most of the time I was sitting there in the shade I was thinking how glad I was not to be fielding in such conditions.

One thing that was very noticeable during my stay in Wales was that it was very hard to get fresh salad vegetables and the like. That may be partly due to weather-related demand or it may be due to a shortage of lorry drivers or other staff owing to Covid-19 isolation requirements and may be a consequence of Brexit. Who knows? I’ll just say that there’s been hot weather in Ireland, where the Covid-19 pandemic is also happening but there are no reports of shortages of fresh food here. I’m very much looking forward to having a nice salad with my dinner this evening.

Anyway, I suppose that’s enough rambling. At some point I’ll have to open up my email box to see what horrors lurk therein. Still can’t be worse than the fridge I opened last week. Can it?

Bernard Schutz FRS!

Posted in Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 6, 2021 by telescoper

I was idly wondering earlier this week when the annual list of new Fellows elected to the Royal Society would be published, as it is normally around this time of year. Today it finally emerged and can be found here.

I am particularly delighted to see that my erstwhile Cardiff colleague Bernard Schutz (with whom I worked in the Data Innovation Research Institute and the School of Physics & Astronomy) is now an FRS! In fact I have known Bernard for quite a long time – he chaired the Panel that awarded me an SERC Advanced Fellowship in the days before STFC, and even before PPARC, way back in 1993. It just goes to show that even the most eminent scientists do occasionally make mistakes…

Anyway, hearty congratulations to Bernard, whose elevation to the Royal Society follows the award, a couple of years ago, of the Eddington Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society about which I blogged here. The announcement from the Royal Society is rather brief:

Bernard Schutz is honoured for his work driving the field of gravitational wave searches, leading to their direct detection in 2015.

I thought I’d add a bit more detail by repeating what was included in the citation for Bernard’s Eddington Medal which focuses on his invention of a method of measuring the Hubble constant using coalescing binary neutron stars. The idea was first published in September 1986 in a Letter to Nature. Here is the first paragraph:

I report here how gravitational wave observations can be used to determine the Hubble constant, H 0. The nearly monochromatic gravitational waves emitted by the decaying orbit of an ultra–compact, two–neutron–star binary system just before the stars coalesce are very likely to be detected by the kilometre–sized interferometric gravitational wave antennas now being designed1–4. The signal is easily identified and contains enough information to determine the absolute distance to the binary, independently of any assumptions about the masses of the stars. Ten events out to 100 Mpc may suffice to measure the Hubble constant to 3% accuracy.

In this paper, Bernard points out that a binary coalescence — such as the merger of two neutron stars — is a self calibrating `standard candle’, which means that it is possible to infer directly the distance without using the cosmic distance ladder. The key insight is that the rate at which the binary’s frequency changes is directly related to the amplitude of the gravitational waves it produces, i.e. how `loud’ the GW signal is. Just as the observed brightness of a star depends on both its intrinsic luminosity and how far away it is, the strength of the gravitational waves received at LIGO depends on both the intrinsic loudness of the source and how far away it is. By observing the waves with detectors like LIGO and Virgo, we can determine both the intrinsic loudness of the gravitational waves as well as their loudness at the Earth. This allows us to directly determine distance to the source.

It may have taken 31 years to get a measurement, but hopefully it won’t be long before there are enough detections to provide greater precision – and hopefully accuracy! – than the current methods can manage!

Here is a short video of Bernard himself talking about his work:

Once again, congratulations to Bernard on a very well deserved election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society.

UPDATE: a more detailed biography of Bernard is now available on the Royal Society website.

The REF goes on

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , , on March 27, 2021 by telescoper

A few communications with former colleagues from the United Kingdom last week reminded me that, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the deadline for submissions to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework is next week. It seems very strange to me to push ahead with this despite the Coronavirus disruption, but it’s yet another sign that academics have to serve the bureaucrats rather than the other way round.

I know quite a few people at quite a few institutions that are completely exhausted by the workload required to deal with the enormous exercise in paperwork that is intended to assess the quality and impact of research at UK universities.

With apologies for adding to the stack of memes based on recent events in the Suez Canal, it made me think of this:

One of the major plusses of being in Ireland is that there is no REF, so I’m able to avoid the enormous workload and stress generated by this exercise in bean-counting. That’s good because there are more than enough things on my plate right now, and more are being added every day.

My memories of the last REF in 2014 when I was Head of School at Sussex are quite painful, as it went badly for us then. I hope that the long-term investments we made then will pay off, though, and I hope things turn out better for Sussex this time especially for the Department of Physics & Astronomy for which the impact and environment components of the assessment dragged the overall score down.

Not being involved personally in the REF this time round I haven’t really paid much attention to the changes that have been adopted since 2014. One I knew about is that the rules make it harder for institutions to leave staff out of their REF return. Some universities played the system in 2014 by being very selective about whom they put in. Only staff with papers considered likely to be rated top-notch were submitted.

Having a quick glance at the documents I see two other significant differences.

One is that in 2014, with very few exceptions, all staff had to submit four research outputs (i.e. papers) to be graded. in 2021 the system is more flexible: the total number of outputs must equal 2.5 times the summed FTE (full-time equivalent) of the unit’s submitted staff, with no individual submitting more than 5 and none fewer than 1 (except in special cases related to Covid-19). Overall, then there will be fewer outputs than before, the multiplier of FTE being 2.5 (2021) instead of 4 (2014). There will still be a lot of papers, of course, not least because many Departments have grown since 2014, so the panels will have a great deal of reading to do. If that’s what they do with the papers. They’ll probably just look up citations…

The other difference relates to staff who have left an institution during the census period. In 2014 the institution to which a researcher moved got all the credit for the publications, while the institution they left got nothing. In 2021, institutions “may return the outputs of staff previously employed as eligible where the output was first made publicly available during the period of eligible employment, within the set number of outputs required.” I suppose this is to prevent the departure of a staff member causing too much damage to the institution they left and also to credit the institution where the work was done rather than specifically the individual who did it.

Thinking about the REF an amusing thought occurred to me about Research Assessment. My idea was to set up a sort of anti-REF (perhaps the Research Inferiority Framework) based not on the best outputs produced by an institutions researchers, but on the worst. The institutions producing the highest number of inferior papers could receive financial penalties and get relegated in the league tables for encouraging staff to write too many papers that nobody ever reads or are just plain wrong. My guess is that papers published in Nature might figure even more prominently in this…

Anyway, let me just take this opportunity to wish former colleagues at Cardiff and Sussex all the best for their REF submission on Wednesday 31st March. I hope it turns out well

Cosmology Talks: Marika Asgari on Kids 1000

Posted in Cardiff, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on January 18, 2021 by telescoper

It’s time I shared another one of those interesting cosmology talks on the Youtube channel curated by Shaun Hotchkiss. This channel features technical talks rather than popular expositions so it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but for those seriously interested in cosmology at a research level they should prove interesting. Since I haven’t posted any of these for a while I’ve got a few to catch up on – this one is from September 2020.

In this talk Marika Asgari tells us about the recent Kilo-Degree Survey (KiDS) cosmological results. These are the first results from KiDS after they have reached a sky coverage of 1000 square degrees. Marika first explains how they know that the results are “statistics dominated” and not “systematics dominated”, meaning that the dominant uncertainty comes from statistical errors, not systematic ones. She then presents the cosmological results, which primarily constrain the clumpiness of matter in the universe, and which therefore constrain Ωm and σ8. In the combined parameter “S8“, which is constrained almost independently from Ωm by their data they see a more than 3σ tension with the equivalent parameter one would infer from Planck.

P. S. The papers that accompany this talk can be found here and here.

Cosmology Talks: Eiichiro Komatsu & Yuto Minami on Parity Violation in the Cosmic Microwave Background

Posted in Cardiff, Maynooth, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on December 2, 2020 by telescoper

It’s time I shared another one of those interesting cosmology talks on the Youtube channel curated by Shaun Hotchkiss. This channel features technical talks rather than popular expositions so it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea but for those seriously interested in cosmology at a research level they should prove interesting.

In this video, Eiichiro Komatsu and Yuto Minami talk about their recent work, first devising a way to extract a parity violating signature in the cosmic microwave background, as manifested by a form of birefringence. If the universe is birefringent then E-mode polarization would change into B-mode as electromagnetic radiation travels through space, so there would be a non-zero correlation between the two measured modes. They  try to measure this correlation using the Planck 2018 data, getting  a 2.4 sigma `hint’ of a result.

A problem with the measurement is that systematic errors, such as imperfectly calibrated detector angles,  could mimic the signal. Yuto and Eiichiro’s  idea was to measure the detector angle by looking at the E-B correlation in the foregrounds, where light hasn’t travelled far enough to be affected by any potential birefringence in the universe. They argue that this allows them to distinguish between the two types of measured E-B correlation. However, this is only the case if there is no intrinsic correlation between the E-mode and B-mode polarization in the foregrounds, which may not be the case, but which they are testing. The method can be applied to any of the plethora of CMB experiments currently underway so there will probably be more results soon that may shed further light on this issue.

Incidentally this reminds me of Cardiff days when work was going on about the same affect using the Quad instrument. I wasn’t involved with Quad but I do remember having interesting chats about the theory behind the measurement or upper limit as it was (which is reported here). Looking at the paper I realize that paper involved researchers from the Department of Experimental Physics at Maynooth University.

P. S. The paper that accompanies this talk can be found here.

Out of the REF

Posted in Biographical, Cardiff, Maynooth with tags , , , , on November 25, 2020 by telescoper

I was talking over Zoom with some former colleagues from the United Kingdom last week, and was surprised to learn that, despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 Research Excellence Framework is ploughing ahead next year, only slightly delayed. There’s no stopping bureaucratic juggernauts once they get going…

One of the major plusses of being in Ireland is that, outside the UK academic system, there is no REF. One can avoid the enormous workload and stress generated by this exercise in bean-counting My memories of the last REF in 2014 when I was Head of School at Sussex are quite painful, as it went badly for us then. I hope that the long-term investments we made then will pay off, though, and I hope things turn out better for Sussex this time especially for the Department of Physics & Astronomy for which the impact and environment components of the assessment dragged the overall score down.

The census period for the new REF is 1st August 2013 to 31st July 2020. Not being involved personally in the REF this time round I haven’t really paid much attention to the changes that have been adopted since 2014. One I knew about is that the rules make it harder for institutions to leave staff out of their REF return. Some universities played the system in 2014 by being very selective about whom they put in. Only staff with papers considered likely to be rated top-notch were submitted.

Having a quick glance at the documents I see two other significant differences.

One is that in 2014, with very few exceptions, all staff had to submit four research outputs (i.e. papers) to be graded. in 2021 the system is more flexible: the total number of outputs must equal 2.5 times the summed FTE (full-time equivalent) of the unit’s submitted staff, with no individual submitting more than 5 and none fewer than 1 (except in special cases related to Covid-19). Overall, then there will be fewer outputs than before, the multiplier of FTE being 2.5 (2021) instead of 4 (2014). There will still be a lot, of course, so the panels will have a great deal of reading to do. If that’s what they do with the papers. They’ll probably just look up citations…

The other difference relates to staff who have left an institution during the census period. In 2014 the institution to which a researcher moved got all the credit for the publications, while the institution they left got nothing. In 2021, institutions “may return the outputs of staff previously employed as eligible where the output was first made publicly available during the period of eligible employment, within the set number of outputs required.” I suppose this is to prevent the departure of a staff member causing too much damage to the institution they left.

I was wondering about this last point when chatting with friends the other day. I moved institutions twice during the relevant census period, from Sussex to Cardiff and then from Cardiff to Maynooth. In principle, therefore, both former employees could submit my outputs I published while I was there to the 2021 REF. I only published a dozen or so papers while I was at Sussex – the impact of being Head of School on my research productivity was considerable – and none of them are particularly highly cited so I don’t think that Sussex will want to submit any of them, but they could if they wanted to. They don’t have to ask my permission!

I doubt if Cardiff will be worried about my papers. Among other things they have a stack of gravitational wave papers that should all be 4*.

Anyway, thinking about the REF an amusing thought occurred to me about Research Assessment. My idea was to set up a sort of anti-REF (perhaps the Research Inferiority Framework) based not on the best outputs produced by an institutions researchers but on the worst. The institutions producing the highest number of inferior papers could receive financial penalties and get relegated in the league tables for encouraging staff to write too many papers that nobody ever reads or are just plain wrong. My guess is that papers published in Nature might figure even more prominently in this

Diversity in Physics – LGBTQ+ STEMDay

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews, Cardiff, LGBT with tags , , , , on November 14, 2020 by telescoper

The nice people involved with Physics at Cardiff University, Prism Exeter and the GW4 group generally have organized a (virtual) event to celebrate Diversity and Inclusion for LGBTQ+ STEM Day 2020 which is to take place on November 18th (that’s next Wednesday). I’m very honoured to have been invited to give a keynote talk at this event, the poster for which is below, and am looking forward to it.

There’s a blog post here that gives more information about the event, including how to register in order to receive the Zoom connection.

I won’t be able to stay for the whole event as I am teaching later that day. I’d have been particularly interested in the session on Open Science…

Astronomy Look-alikes No. 100

Posted in Astronomy Lookalikes, Cardiff, Television with tags , , , on September 16, 2020 by telescoper

I haven’t done any of these for a while, but last night I was surprised to see Professor Jane Greaves of Cardiff University on television for the second time in a week so I couldn’t resist. I wonder how while discovering phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus she finds the time to play Detective Chief Inspector Vera Stanhope in the popular detective series Vera?

Today’s Big Astronomy Announcement

Posted in Astrohype, Cardiff, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on September 14, 2020 by telescoper

Rumours have been circulating for a few days about a big astronomical discovery. Here is a video of the announcement:

Sorry, that’s the wrong video.

The actual announcement will take place live at 4pm BST here:

Until a few minutes ago I didn’t have a clue what this was about, but now I do…

Phone ship surprisingly detected in atmosphere of Venus (9)

If you would like to read more about this discovery then you can read the paper in Nature here. Several of the authors are former Cardiff colleagues, including first author Jane Greaves, as well as Annabel Cartwright and my former office mate Emily Drabek-Maunder. Congratulations to them on an exciting result!

P.S. Emily reminded me last night that I was present at the discussion with Jane that started this project, over four years ago. I remember them talking about phosphine but had no idea that it would lead to this!