Nature Piece Plug

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 17, 2019 by telescoper

Just a quick post to advertise that a short piece what I wrote is now published online on the journal Nature. It will appear in the print edition published tomorrow.

I think the title is fairly self-explanatory – it’s basically a triple book review, but with some additional scientific background thrown in.

Should you wish to do so, you can download a PDF version of the article here.

There’s a SharedIt link too.


Failing A-levels

Posted in Education with tags , , on April 17, 2019 by telescoper

As it is tangentially related to yesterday’s post I thought I’d comment on an article in The Times with the headline

University grades: firsts for quarter of students with lowest A levels

The piece (which you probably won’t read as it is behind a paywall) goes on to imply that the success at degree level of students who got poor A-levels results is the result of ‘grade inflation’.

My take on this is somewhat different. To me it just confirms what I’ve thought for years, namely that A-levels are virtually useless, either as a preparation for undergraduate study or as an indicator of academic potential. If they are are a guide to anything at all, it is to the quality of the school the student was lucky enough to attend.

It’s not only a shame that UK universities rely on A-levels so heavily for student recruitment but also a disgrace that institutions are punished in league tables whenever they take on students with low results. And if they do a good job educating such students to high levels of achievement they get attacked in churlish articles accusing them of lowering standards.

The assumption behind this is that there should be a near-perfect correlation between entry and exit qualifications. That is not the case at all, and why on earth should it be?

Look at this the other way round. Oxbridge only accepts students with the highest A-levels results, so why do these Universities not award more first-class degrees? Dare I suggest that perhaps not all the students they select have the aptitude their school qualifications suggest?

I noticed this the other day. It’s a list of skills needed for the job market in 2020.

Strangely, ‘rote learning’, ‘uncritical regurgitation of factoids’, and ‘ability to perform formulaic tasks’ are not on the list. They’re not much use as a preparation for university study either. So why does the UK school education system place such an emphasis on precisely these useless activities, to the exclusion of actually useful things?

Answers on a postcard please.

In Praise of Omnibus Science

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , on April 16, 2019 by telescoper

I’m taking a few days off at the moment so this morning I had a bit of time to catch up on various things. One news item I stumbled across points out that first-choice applications to study at Maynooth University are the highest ever. Within the overall increase of about 7% there is a growth of 17% in Science subjects, which is very good news for the Department of Theoretical Physics as well as the other Departments in the Faculty of Science and Engineering.

Anyway, this spurred me to comment on what I think is one of the strengths of Maynooth University: the Omnibus Science programme.

Currently, most students doing Science subjects here enter on the Omnibus programme, a four-year science course that involves doing four subjects in the first year, but becoming increasingly specialised thereafter. That’s not unlike the Natural Sciences course I did at Cambridge, except that students at Maynooth can do both Theoretical Physics and Experimental Physics in the first year as separate choices. Other possibilities include Chemistry, Computer Science, Biology, etc.

In Year 1 students do four subjects (one of which is Mathematics). That is narrowed down to three in Year 2 and two in Year 3. In their final year, students can stick with two subjects for a Joint Honours degree, or specialise in one, for Single Honours.

I like this programme because it does not force the students to choose a specialism before they have had a taste of the subject, and that it is flexible enough to accommodate Joint Honours qualifications in, e.g., Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. It also allows us to enrol students onto Physics degrees who have not done Physics as part of the Leaving Certificate.

I think it’s a strength that students take such a broad first year rather than locking themselves into one discipline from the start. Part of the reason is that I went to do my own degree at Cambridge expecting to end up specialising in Chemistry, but enjoyed the physics far more, eventually specialising in Theoretical Physics. I’m sure there were others who went the other way too!

One problem with the Omnibus Science programme is that the range of possible final qualifications is perhaps not as clearly advertised as it could be, so some clearer signposting would do no harm.

Our Lady of Paris

Posted in Architecture, History with tags , , , , on April 15, 2019 by telescoper

As I write, a catastrophic fire is raging in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris. Having started on the roof (or perhaps in a space underneath it), the flames spread rapidly through the mediaeval timbers of the building, bringing down the ceiling onto the nave, and causing the spire to collapse.

Restoration work on the roof started just four days ago and the area where the fire began was surrounded by scaffolding. Though nobody yet knows for sure what caused the fire, it seems likely to have been something to do with the ongoing repairs.

Watching the video streamed live from the scene with increasing horror, it seemed to me that the firemen were helpless to halt the advancing inferno. They just couldn’t get enough water onto the top of the huge structure quickly enough to contain the blaze. It was heartbreaking viewing. I fear very little will be left standing and most of the interior will have been completely destroyed, as this drone picture suggests:

At least there seem to have been no fatalities, although one brave fireman is reported to be seriously injured.

The loss of an iconic building like Notre Dame is shattering event for anyone who has been there, as I have on several occasions. Nobody who has seen the splendour of the 13th Century Rose Windows, for example, will ever forget the experience, so the destruction feels like losing a part of one’s own life. But above all it is a terrible loss for the people of Paris, as Notre Dame is the embodiment of so much of that beautiful and ancient city’s history.

Nobody put this better than Victor Hugo in Notre-Dame de Paris:

Notre Dame de Paris, in particular, is a curious specimen of this variety. Every surface, every stone of this venerable pile, is a page of the history not only of the country, but of science and of art. Thus—to mention here only a few of the chief details—whereas the small Porte Rouge almost touches the limits of fifteenth century Gothic delicacy, the pillars of the nave, by their massiveness and great girth, reach back to the Carlovingian Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One would imagine that six centuries lay between that door and those pillars. Not even the Hermetics fail to find in the symbols of the grand doorway a satisfactory compendium of their science, of which the Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie was so complete a hieroglyph. Thus the Roman Abbey—the Church of the Mystics—Gothic art—Saxon art—the ponderous round pillar reminiscent of Gregory VII, the alchemistic symbolism by which Nicolas Flamel paved the way for Luther—papal unity—schism—Saint-Germain-des-Prés—Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie—all are blended, combined, amalgamated in Notre Dame. This generative Mother-Church is, among the other ancient churches of Paris, a sort of Chimera: she has the head of one, the limbs of another, the body of a third—something of all.

I’m sure Parisians will be in a state of shock tonight and that will turn to something very close to grief. Mere words from me won’t help much, but let me in any case express my profound sadness and sympathy to my French friends and colleagues in Paris and around the world.

But if I know them at all, the French will soon set about the task of rebuilding, probably creating something majestic and extraordinary to replace what has been lost.

UPDATE: the morning after, it seems the fire was brought under control quickly enough to save the walls and towers, and at least one of the Rose Windows.

That this has been achieved owes everything to the courage and skill of the Pompiers, 500 of whom fought the blaze last night. Magnifique.

Grubb Parsons: the Irish Connection

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , on April 15, 2019 by telescoper

The other day I stumbled across an interesting article that discusses, among other things, the famous telescope and optical instrument manufacturing company, Grubb Parsons. The piece is a few years old but I didn’t see it when it came out. It’s well worth a read.

Grubb Parsons was still a famous company when I was at school, but it closed down in 1985. The main works were in Heaton, in Newcastle Upon Tyne, not far from where I was born; my father went to Heaton Grammar School.

Grubb Parsons made a huge number of extremely important astronomical telescopes, including the Isaac Newton Telescope, pictured above at the works in Heaton.

Interestingly, the names ‘Grubb’ and ‘Parsons’ both have strong Irish connections.

Howard Grubb was born in Dublin in 1844 and in 1864 he joined the optical instruments company set up there by his father Thomas Grubb. When his father died in 1878 Howard Grubb took over the Grubb Telescope Company and consolidated its reputation for manufacturing high quality optical components and devices. He was knighted in 1887.

Back in 1845 Thomas Grubb had helped build the famous ‘Leviathan‘ telescope for William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse at Birr Castle in County Offaly.

Charles Algernon Parsons, who took over the Grubb Telescope Company after it was liquidated in 1925, and relocated it to Tyneside, was the youngest son of William Parsons ( just as Howard Grubb was the youngest son of Thomas). He no doubt kept the name Grubb in the company name because of its associated reputation.

Parsons had a wide range of business interests besides telescopes, mainly in the marine heavy engineering sector, especially steam turbines. When I was a lad, ‘C A Parsons & Company’ was still one of the biggest employers on Tyneside. It still exists but as part of Siemens and is a much smaller operation than in its heyday.

One final connection is that Sir Howard Grubb and Sir Charles Algernon Parsons both passed away in the same year, 1931.

Patterns – by Amy Lowell

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on April 14, 2019 by telescoper

I walk down the garden paths,
And all the daffodils
Are blowing, and the bright blue squills.
I walk down the patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan,
I too am a rare
Pattern. As I wander down
The garden paths.

My dress is richly figured,
And the train
Makes a pink and silver stain
On the gravel, and the thrift
Of the borders.
Just a plate of current fashion,
Tripping by in high-heeled, ribboned shoes.
Not a softness anywhere about me,
Only whalebone and brocade.
And I sink on a seat in the shade
Of a lime tree.For my passion
Wars against the stiff brocade.
The daffodils and squills
Flutter in the breeze
As they please.
And I weep;
For the lime-tree is in blossom
And one small flower has dropped upon my bosom.

And the plashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden-paths.
The dripping never stops.
Underneath my stiffened gown
Is the softness of a woman bathing in a marble basin,
A basin in the midst of hedges grown
So thick, she cannot see her lover hiding,
But she guesses he is near,
And the sliding of the water
Seems the stroking of a dear
Hand upon her.
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.

I would be the pink and silver as I ran along the paths,
And he would stumble after,
Bewildered by my laughter.
I should see the sun flashing from his sword-hilt and the buckles
on his shoes.
I would choose
To lead him in a maze along the patterned paths,
A bright and laughing maze for my heavy-booted lover,
Till he caught me in the shade,
And the buttons of his waistcoat bruised my body as he clasped me,
Aching, melting, unafraid.
With the shadows of the leaves and the sundrops,
And the plopping of the waterdrops,
All about us in the open afternoon —
I am very like to swoon
With the weight of this brocade,
For the sun sifts through the shade.

Underneath the fallen blossom
In my bosom,
Is a letter I have hid.
It was brought to me this morning by a rider from the Duke.
“Madam, we regret to inform you that Lord Hartwell
Died in action Thursday se’nnight.”
As I read it in the white, morning sunlight,
The letters squirmed like snakes.
“Any answer, Madam,” said my footman.
“No,” I told him.
“See that the messenger takes some refreshment.
No, no answer.”
And I walked into the garden,
Up and down the patterned paths,
In my stiff, correct brocade.
The blue and yellow flowers stood up proudly in the sun,
Each one.
I stood upright too,
Held rigid to the pattern
By the stiffness of my gown.
Up and down I walked,
Up and down.

In a month he would have been my husband.
In a month, here, underneath this lime,
We would have broke the pattern;
He for me, and I for him,
He as Colonel, I as Lady,
On this shady seat.
He had a whim
That sunlight carried blessing.
And I answered, “It shall be as you have said.”
Now he is dead.

In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
Up and down
The patterned garden-paths
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
The squills and daffodils
Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
I shall go
Up and down,
In my gown.
Gorgeously arrayed,
Boned and stayed.
And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
By each button, hook, and lace.
For the man who should loose me is dead,
Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
In a pattern called a war.
Christ! What are patterns for?

by Amy Lowell (1874-1925)

A Prominence from Principe

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on April 13, 2019 by telescoper

While I seem to be on a little run of posts about the 1919 Eclipse I thought I’d share the above photograph, taken at Principe, that shows that the bending of light from stars was not the only observation made at this eclipse. At the top of the figure you can see a wonderful example of a solar prominence..