Archive for the LGBT Category

Loughborough Pride in STEM Research Showcase

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Talks and Reviews on February 13, 2019 by telescoper


So here I am then, in Burleigh Court (a hotel on the campus of Loughborough University), having just had a fine breakfast, preparing for the start of today’s Pride in STEM Research Showcase, which I am very much looking forward to. I’m giving the keynote talk at the end of the day’s events and will be here for the whole day. I’m very grateful to the organizers for inviting me and especially to Claudia Eberlein, Dean of Science at Loughborough University for greeting me when I arrived at Burleigh Court.

Some readers may recall that I worked with Claudia Eberlein at the University of Sussex a few years ago – she was Head of the Department of Physics & Astronomy for a time, but last year she moved to her new role at Loughborough. It was nice to have a beer and share some gossip about goings-on at the old place. It seems quite a few of the people I worked with at Sussex until 2016 have moved on to pastures new. Perhaps I’d better not comment further.

Anyway, I travelled yesterday evening from Dublin via the dreaded Ryanair who operate the only direct flights from Dublin to East Midlands Airport. In fairness, though, it was a very pleasant experience: we departed and arrived on time, where I was met on arrival by a driver who took me to Burleigh Court by taxi.

Well, I had better get my act together for the start of the meeting. Toodle-pip!

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LGBT STEMinar Gallery

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff on January 17, 2019 by telescoper

The official photographer at last week’s LGBT STEMinar took these pictures of me while I was delivering my keynote talk, and I thought you might find it amusing to see them. Actually quite a few of them could serve as subjects for a caption competition!

Out and Back

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Maynooth on January 13, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am, back home in Maynooth, after a very enjoyable day and a bit in London during which I learnt a huge amount and met so many lovely people. If only all science conferences were so much fun!

Incidentally, next year’s LGBT+ STEMinar will take place in Birmingham (2020), and the one after that in Oxford (2021). I’m told the first such event had about 40 participants but it’s now struggling to find big enough venues. The attendance at this year’s event was strictly limited by the capacity of the lecture room in the new IOP building. Hopefully the next will have a bigger theatre to enable even more people to come.

As well as being my first LGBT+ STEMinar this was also the first time I’ve ever flown on Aer Lingus. I was quite impressed, with flights in both directions being ahead of schedule. In fact I got back in such good time yesterday afternoon that I was able to get a much earlier bus than I had thought possible and found myself at home well before 7pm.

This trip gave me the chance for the first time to use the newer and swankier Terminal 2 in Dublin, which is a lot comfier than Terminal 1 (from which FlyBe and other budget airlines operate). It was Terminal 2 at Heathrow too, which is where I had awful problems with Eurowings earlier this year, but there were no problems this time. Both Dublin and Heathrow airports were very quiet. There is probably a post-Christmas lull in air travel at this time of year.

I did quite a lot of walking around London on Friday and Saturday, including walking to the Athenaeum from King’s Cross for the RAS Club. It’s hard to believe I lived in London for quite a long time (1990-98) as I am obviously a total stranger there now. I did however recognise the wonderfully cosmopolitan vibe as I walked through the West End towards Piccadilly. I was almost late for dinner as there were so many people about it was sometimes hard to make progress through the crowds. I’m also, of course, not as fast a walker as I used to be…

Anyway now that I’m back the main job for the next day or two is going to be marking examinations, no doubt preceded by numerous displacement activities..

LGBT+ STEMinar – Notes on my Keynote

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on January 12, 2019 by telescoper

I’m in a hotel near King’s Cross having had my Full English and with an hour or so before I have to check out and trek to Heathrow for my flight back to Dublin.

First things first. I promised a few people yesterday at the LGBT STEMinar that I would post the slides I used in my Keynote talk yesterday so here you go:

And here are a few pictures of me in action. I got all these from Twitter so apologize for not giving due credit to the photographers. My timeline was very crowded yesterday!

What I tried to do in the talk was to discuss the theme of progress over the last thirty years, both in my area of research (cosmology, specifically the large-scale structure of the Universe) and in the area of LGBT+ rights.

I started with my time as a graduate student at Sussex. One of the first things I did during `Freshers Week’ at when I started there was to join the GaySoc (as it was called) and I gradually became more involved in it as time went on. Over the five years I was at Sussex, `Gaysoc’ became `Lesbian and Gay Soc’ but a move to recognize bisexual people in the title was voted down, by quite a large margin. Inclusivity was (and still isn’t) a given even among marginalized groups. Biphobia and transphobia are still very much around.

Initially I kept my sexual orientation separate from my academic life and wasn’t really all that open in the Department in which I worked. My decision to change that was largely because of things going on in the outside world that convinced me that there was a need to stand up and be counted.

One of these was the AIDS `panic’ exacerbated by the Thatcher Government’s awful advertising campaign, an example of which you can see above. It was a very frightening time to be gay, not only because of the fear of contracting AIDS oneself but also because of the hostility that arose as a reaction to the `gay plague’. I’m convinced that this campaign led directly to a great deal of the violence that was inflicted on gay people during this time, including myself.

The second thing that made me want to come out was the Local Government Act (1988), which included the now infamous Section 28 (above). This was the subject of the first political demonstrations I ever attended. We failed to stop it becoming law, which was what we had wanted to do, but one positive that came out of this was that it did galvanize a lot of people into action, and the law was eventually repealed.

Anyway, I just got fed up of hearing people making ill-informed generalisations during this time. Rather than make a big public statement about being gay, I just resolved to not let such comments pass. I think it only took a few intercessions in the tea room or Falmer Bar for it to become widely known in the Department that I was gay. That was how I came out in astrophysics, and thereafter almost everyone just seemed to know.

So that was the eighties. If somebody had told me then that in thirty years the United Kingdom would have legalized same-sex marriage I would just have laughed. That wasn’t even really being discussed by the LGBT+ community then.

Anyway, back to the talk. What I then tried to do – actually for most of the presentation – was to outline the progress that has been made over the last thirty years in cosmology. When I started in 1985 there was hardly any data. There were some small redshift surveys of the order of a thousand galaxies, but my thesis was supposed to be about the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background and there were no relevant measurements back then. I had to rely on simulations, as I mentioned here a few days ago.

Over the years there has been tremendous progress, especially with the accumulation of data enabled by improvements in observational technology. Theory has moved on to the extent that we now have a standard model of cosmology that accounts for most of this data (at least in a broad-brush sense) with just six free parameters. That’s a great success.

This rapid progress has led some to suggest that cosmology is now basically over in the sense that we have done virtually everything that we’ll ever do. I disagree with this entirely. The standard model contains a number of assumptions (general relativity, cold dark matter, a cosmological constant, and so on) all of which should be questioned. In science every answer leads to new questions and all progress to new challenges. If we ever rest on our laurels the field will stagnate and die. Success should never lead to complacency.

So then in the talk I returned to LGBT+ rights. Some (straight) people have said to me that now that we have equal marriage then it’s basically all done, isn’t it? There’s now no discrimination. You can stop talking about LGBT+ matters and `just be a scientist’.

That, I’m afraid, is bollocks. We have equal marriage but, though welcome, by no means represents some sort of utopia. Society is still basically a patriarchy, configured in a way that is profoundly unfair to many groups of people, so there are still many challenges to be fought. Unless we keep pushing for a truly inclusive society there is a real danger that the rights we have won could easily be rolled back. This is no more over than cosmology is over. In fact, you could really say that it’s really just the start.

The 2019 LGBT+STEMinar

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on January 11, 2019 by telescoper

I’m just back in my hotel after an evening at the Royal Astronomical Society Club Dinner which I went to straight from today’s LGBT+STEMinar at the very nice new Institute of Physics building on Caledonian Road near King’s Cross. This is what it looked like when I arrived this morning:

I enjoyed the LGBT+ STEMinar very much indeed. There was a huge range of talks by a wonderfully diverse crowd of speakers, on topics ranging from nuclear waste, parasites in wood mice, glaciology, quantum optics, the evolution of island finches, bacterial pathogenesis, gamma-ray bursts and machine learning in astrophysics.

I particular enjoyed the talk by Niamh Kavanagh from the Tyndall Institute in Cork who handed out home-made filters to give herself a rainbow effect:

I was delighted and relieved that my keynote talk and the end of the day seemed to go down quite well, at least judging by the comments I found in my Twitter feed just now. Here’s a picture I found there!

I’ll post the slides from my talk and perhaps a few other comments about it tomorrow, after I’ve had a good night’s sleep. But I won’t delay in thanking the organisers, especially Angela Townsend, for making this such a special day.

Cosmological Simulations down Memory Lane

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, The Universe and Stuff with tags on January 8, 2019 by telescoper

On Friday I have to be in London to give a keynote talk at this year’s LGBT+ STEMinar, which is taking place at the new Institute of Physics Building near King’s Cross. I’ve been struggling to think what to say but a conversation this afternoon with some of our PhD students gave me an idea. I won’t spoil it for those going to the event by giving too much detail away, but it involves going over the past 30 years of cosmology and LGBT+ rights alongside each other, pointing out that in both areas there has been great progress but there is also still very much to do.

Anyway, in the course of this I had a look at my thesis (vintage 1988) and came up with the following pictures, in glorious monochrome:

You can click on them to make them bigger. When I started my graduate studies in 1985 my thesis was supposed to be about the statistical analysis of the cosmic microwave background. The problem was that way back then there weren’t any measurements, so I had to make simulations to test various analysis methods on. The above images are examples that ended up in a published paper.

You have no idea what a pain it was to make these images. I had very limited access to a graphics terminal so I had to send these to a special printer in the computer room  (which was behind closed doors and an airlock) and then wait (sometimes for days) for the operators to process the files and produce a the printout. If they came out wrong the process had to be repeated. It was all frustratingly slow as my programs were quite buggy, at least to begin with.

For those of you interested, these simulations were made using a (two-dimensional) Fast-Fourier Transform method, using a pseudo-random number generator to set up appropriate amplitudes and phases for the Fourier modes. The only even remotely clever bit was to find a way of generating Gaussian and non-Gaussian maps with the same two-point correlations.

In all it took me several months of work to complete the work that went into that paper (which was essentially a thesis chapter). When I look back on it I think if I’d been cleverer – and had a decent graphics screen like you find on a modern PC – I could have done it all in a couple of days!

And now, of course, we have real data as well as simulations!

My point is that things that seem very difficult at the time often look extremely easy in retrospect. And that’s not just the case in cosmology.

 

 

R.I.P. Pete Shelley (1955-2018)

Posted in Biographical, LGBT, Music with tags , , on December 7, 2018 by telescoper

I heard the news late last night of the passing of Pete Shelley, best known as the lead singer of the Buzzcocks. Another iconic figure from my youth has gone. I was never really interested in the 70s punk movement in the UK, but the Buzzcocks managed to combine some of the energy and directness of punk rock with more conventional pop melodies. Above all, though, there was Pete Shelley’s style of delivery, head tilted to one side, a unique mixture of queer camp and unapologetic defiance. That had a big effect on me in my teenage years. In particular, I remember watching watching this performance on Top of the Pops in 1978 (forty years ago, when I was 15) and understanding exactly what the song was about. Ever Fallen In Love only got to number 12 in the charts, but in my memory it was a far bigger hit than that.

Rest in peace, Pete Shelley (1955-2018).

P.S. The answer to the question posed in the song is, of course, `yes’..