The 2021 Gruber Prize for Cosmology: Marc Kamionkowski, Uroš Seljak &Matias Zaldarriaga

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on May 5, 2021 by telescoper

I’ve just heard via the IAU newsletter that the 2021 Gruber Prize for Cosmology has been awarded to Marc Kamionkowski, Uroš Seljak and Matias Zaldarriaga (from left to right in the picture). Congratulations to them on a well-deserved honour!

In brief the prize is awarded for their contributions to the study of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) and the early Universe. The three recipients of the prize developed techniques to use observations of the CMB to derive information about the early Universe, including some classic work in the 1990s developing the CMBFAST code for calculating properties of the CMB and seminal papers on the polarization of the CMB published in 1997 here and here that did a huge amount to advance that as the important topic it remains this day.

For a fuller description see the press release here.

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…

Rights Retention, Open Access and Learned Society Publishing.

Posted in Open Access on May 4, 2021 by telescoper

The April 2021 issue of Physics World arrived this morning after the usual month in the post to Ireland. I don’t know why it takes so long. My copy of Private Eye usually takes just a couple of days.

Anyway, there is an interview in the latest issue with Steve Hall, the former Managing Director of IOP Publishing who stepped down last month. The piece is entitled The Future of Learned-Society Publishing. Here’s a short excerpt:

I laughed out loud when I read the bit about the “downsides” of a rights-retention policy (basically that authors of a work keep the copyright to their work). Such a policy would of course undermine the subscription model and the Gold Open Access models in the way Steven Hall describes, but that is exactly why it is a good idea as neither of these models is sustainable or justifiable. The Open Journal of Astrophysics – a Diamond Open Access journal fully compliant with Plan S – allows authors to own the copyright of their papers. I’d be astonished if anyone who has the best interests of scientific research at heart would argue against such a policy.

This interview does raise an interesting aspect of the ongoing debate about Open Access publishing is the extent to which “learned societies”, such as the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics, rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals.

IOP Publishing is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that generates a sizeable annual income – tends of millions of pounds – from books and journals. This is the largest source of the revenue that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics. A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing in a blog post some time ago, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That comment seems to admit that the high prices charged by IOP Publishing for access to its journals is nothing to do with the cost of disseminating scientific knowledge but is instead a means of generating income to allow the IoP to pursue its noble aim of “promoting Physics”. This explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access that is being foisted on the research community, rather than the far more justifiable Diamond Open Access.

The problem with the learned societies behaving this way is twofold. First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed by other modes of publication. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that journals are already redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations is unjustifiable and unsustainable and it won’t last. The IoP, RAS et al need to find another way of funding their activities pronto, or downsize accordingly.

The other problematic aspect of this approach is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with disseminating research. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed oustandingly good – but that does not give them the right to syphon off funds from their constituents in this way. Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities than raiding library budgets.

I should point out that, as a FRAS and a FInstP, I pay annual subscriptions to both the RAS and the IoP. I am happy to do so, as I feel comfortable spending some of my own money supporting astronomy and physics. What I don’t agree with is my department having to fork out huge amounts of money from an ever-dwindling budget for access to scientific research that should in any case be in the public domain because it has already been funded by the taxpayer.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfils little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.

But I wonder if the learned societies will go the same way. Is there a financial model according to which they can enjoy a stable and sustainable future? Are they actually needed? After all, if we can publish our own physics, why can’t we ourselves also promote it?

Cosmology Talks about the Open Journal of Astrophysics

Posted in Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on May 3, 2021 by telescoper

I have from time to time posted videos from the series of Cosmology Talks curated by Shaun Hotchkiss. These are usually technical talks at the level you might expect for a cosmology seminar, but this time it’s something different. Shaun asked me if I’d like to give a talk about the Open Journal of Astrophysics, so one night last week we recorded this. We ended up chatting about quite a lot of things so it turned out longer than most of the videos in the series, but it’s not a technical talk so I hope you’ll find it bearable!

At the Castle Gate

Posted in Covid-19, Music on May 2, 2021 by telescoper

When (if?) this Covid business ends I hope we’ll remember the things that kept us going through it. Here is one of the socially distanced concerts broadcast by RTÉ Lyric FM*. I hope that in a few years’ time people will look back on recordings of events like this and understand what a weird time it has been. People come and go, but the music continues.

I found the performance of the incidental music by Jean Sibelius for Pelléas et Mélisande  starting at about 24.40 very moving, the isolation of the orchestra and the emptiness of the hall, enhancing the extraordinarily beautiful music. I think fans of The Sky At Night will enjoy it too…


P.S. It was the 22nd birthday of RTE Lyric FM on May 1st 2021..

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.



Cosmology from Home

Posted in The Universe and Stuff on April 29, 2021 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on an announcement about the forthcoming Cosmology from Home 2021 conference.

Cosmology from Home is an online cosmology conference with a novel format aimed at bringing the real-world workshop experience into the virtual domain. The format includes the use of pre-recorded talks, and a combination of asynchronous and scheduled live discussions. A freely-navigated virtual office space also facilitates ongoing, organic discussions. The conference will bring together cosmologists from around the world to discuss the current state of cosmology at the interface of theory and observations. For more details see here.

Registration for this event is now open here.

Please note that there will be a limited number of participants so book early!


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.