Archive for Andrew Liddle

50 Years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex

Posted in Biographical, Education, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 18, 2016 by telescoper

On Saturday (15th October) I was back in Brighton for the first time since I left my job there at the end of July. The occasion was a very nice lunch party to celebrate 50 years of the Astronomy Centre at the University of Sussex, which started properly in 1966. It was a pleasant occasion, and great to have the chance to catch up with some people I haven’t seen for far too long. I had two stints in the Astronomy Centre: once as a student then postdoc from 1985 to 1990, and the other from 2013 to 2016 when I was Head of the School of which the Astronomy Centre is part. I had a lot more time to do research in the first incarnation than in the second!

Quite a few people present hadn’t realised I was no longer working at Sussex, which led to one or two slightly awkward conversations, but I was thankfully very far from being the centre of attention.

After the lunch itself we had short speeches from various alumni of the Astronomy Centre: esteemed science writer John Gribbbin (who was one of its first MSc students in 1966); Lord Martin Rees (who was briefly a Professor at Sussex, before he returned to Cambridge to take up the Plumian Professorship); John Barrow (who was my supervisor while I was there); Carlos Frenk (who was a postdoctoral researcher when I arrived in September 1985, but who left to take up a lectureship in Durham at the end of that year so we overlapped only for a short time); Andrew Liddle (who arrived near the end of my stay and was there for 22 years altogether, leaving at the end of 2012 to take up a post in Edinburgh); and Peter Thomas (current Director of the Astronomy Centre).

When I arrived in 1985 there were only four permanent faculty in the Astronomy Centre itself – Roger Tayler, Leon Mestel, John Barrow and Robert Smith – but research there was thriving and it was a great environment to work in. I count myself very lucky at having made such a good choice of a place to do my PhD DPhil. Leon and Robert both worked on stellar astrophysics, but after Leon’s retirement the centre increasingly focussed on cosmology and extragalactic astrophysics, which remains the case today. Roger Tayler sadly passed away in 1997, but Leon is still around: he is 89 years old and now lives in Cambridge.

Those present at the lunch were given a booklet featuring around 50 academic papers or other research “highlights”(e.g. the launch of Planck), approximately one for each year of the Astronomy Centre, chosen to be the “best” of that year. Each page was also shown as a slide during the lunch. I was thrilled to see that two of my papers (from 1987 and 1991 respectively) made it into the collection. The second one was published after I’d left Sussex, but I definitely did the work on it and submitted it while an employee of the Astronomy Centre. Andrew Liddle and John Barrow have the largest number of “greatest hits”, but the most famous paper is probably the classic “DEFW” which won Carlos Frenk and his collaborators the Gruber Prize about five years ago.

The book also contains various bits of interesting bibliometric information, such as this, which shows that the variation in the productivity of the Astronomy Centre over time.


Anyway, for those who are interested, the whole collection of slides can be viewed here:

Thanks to Seb Oliver and the rest of the Astronomy Centre for organizing this very enjoyable event – and for sending me the slides! Here’s to the next 50 years of Astronomy at the University of Sussex!


The Conundrum Conundrum

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on December 19, 2013 by telescoper

Last week I attended a talk here at Sussex by Andrew Liddle who came back from Edinburgh especially fro the event (and not at all  in order to attend the Astronomy Centre Christmas Party, coincidentally later the same day). When he circulated the details of his talk, the title he gave was Cosmological Conundrums. Not being at all pedantic I naturally suggested that it should be Cosmological Conundra. Somewhat to my surprise he made that correction on the title slide of his talk. Later on, at the dinner, colleagues of mine argued that conundrum isn’t a Latin word so shouldn’t have a Latin plural; in much the same way that the plural of “bum” is not “ba”.

Actually the origin of the word “conundrum” is a bit of a puzzle in its own right. For one thing it certainly isn’t a word having an origin in Latin; the trusty Oxford English Dictionary says “Origin Lost” and Chambers says “Etymology Unknown”. Interestingly there are many variant spellings (such as quonundrum and quadundrum) and no less than 5 different definitions, given here in order of first recorded occurrence in written English (the first in 1596).

1. Applied abusively to a person. (? Pedant, crotchet-monger, or ninny.)

2.  A whim, crotchet, maggot, conceit

3.  A pun or word-play depending on similarity of sound in words of different meaning.

4. a. A riddle in the form of a question the answer to which involves a pun or play on words: called in 1769 conundrumical question. b. Any puzzling question or problem; an enigmatical statement.

5.  A thing that one is puzzled to name, a ‘what-d’ye-call-it’. rare.

It is 4b that represents the most common modern usage; that first came into English as late as 1790. The OED also argues quite strongly that 1 is not the first  use in English and probably doesn’t convey the original meaning; it’s just the first example of the word having been found in a written document.

So does the fact that “conundrum” is not a Latin word mean that its plural should be “conundrums” rather than “conundra”?

Maybe. But probably not. The best theory the OED gives for its etymology is “originating in some university joke, or as a parody of some Latin term of the schools, which would agree with its unfixed form in 17–18th cent”. I would argue that if conundrum is a made-up word meant to imitate or parody a Latin term then it should in fact be treated in the same way when forming its plural. The last thing anyone wants is a half-hearted parody and, in any case, I’m sure that the students who coined the term would have used the appropriate plural form.

Anyway, in the course of this investigation I discovered the word “crotchet-monger”, which I simply must try to get into my next public lecture.