Archive for Athenaeum

A celebration of Sir Fred Hoyle at the Royal Astronomical Society

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on October 13, 2015 by telescoper

I had to miss this meeting – because I was involved in a special Senate meeting on Friday afternoon – but I did make it to the “famous RAS Dining Club” afterwards where I had a brief chat with the author of this post, Cormac O’ Raifeartaigh.

Here, for reference, is the Athenaeum, where we dined on Friday..



The birth centenary of the noted British astrophysicist Sir Fred Hoyle was celebrated on Friday at the Royal Astronomical Society with a one-day meeting of talks describing Sir Fred’s many contributions to 20th century physics. While he is chiefly remembered in some quarters as the physicist who was ‘wrong on the big bang’, Sir Fred in fact made a number of seminal contributions to modern physics in several fields. Indeed, it was a treat to witness former collaborators and students recall his contribution to stellar nucleosynthesis, accretion physics, stellar structure, astrobiology and cosmology, to name but a few.

I hadn’t been to the RAS before although I was elected a Fellow a few years ago, and I was stunned by its fantastic location in central London location. it is housed in the famous Burlington House on Piccadilly, sharing the premises and courtyard with the Linnean Society, the Geological Society

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Dress Codes

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a very quick one before I scoot off to London for this month’s Royal Astronomical Society meeting (and subsequent Club dinner).

Today is the last day of “Revision Week” so I had a two-hour revision class this morning. I gave my final proper lecture at Cardiff University before Christmas, in fact, but this morning was the last teaching of any sort I’ll be doing here before I move to Sussex at the end of the month. If any of the students taking The Physics of Fields and Flows happens to read this, then I wish them the best of luck in next week’s examination!

I won’t be able to mark the scripts (and thus find out how well they’ve all done) until I return from a trip to Brighton next week to carry out interviews for three lectureships in astronomy at Sussex recently advertised. I’m looking forward to that, but I think the three days will be just as gruelling for the panel as for the candidates.

There were some sarcastic comments at the start of today’s class about the fact that I was wearing a suit and tie. It reminded me of an old joke: “Q: What do you call a ‹insert name of institution> graduate who’s wearing a suit? A: The Accused.” I think I can guess which institution most Cardiff students would pick as the butt of that one.

In fact the reason I’m wearing a suit today is that there’s a dress code for the RAS Club, which dines at the Athenaeum. It’s not very strict, actually, just jacket-and-tie, but I usually dust off one of my suits for the occasion as I don’t mind dressing up now and again. The only other clubs I’ve been to that operate a dress code have been very different, but I’ll draw a hasty veil over that.

The RAS Club isn’t particularly posh, actually, nor is it as stuffy as people seem to think. This evening is the Parish Dinner at which the Club elects new members. It’s nice to see quite a few youngsters among the candidates, but the election procedure is so dotty it’s impossible to predict who will get in!

Coincidentally, I got an email about the dress code for next week’s interviews. “Smart casual”, apparently. Since I don’t really know what that means I think I’ll wear a suit, which presumably most of the male candidates will too.

It always seems to me rather peculiar, this thing of dressing up for interviews. The default style of dress for academics is “scruffy”, so it’s a bit odd that we all seem to pretend that it’s otherwise for interviews. I suppose it’s just to emphasize that it’s a formal occasion from the point of view of the interview panel, and to show that the candidates are taking it seriously. I don’t really pay much attention to what interviewees wear, other than that if they look like they’ve just been dragged through a hedge one might infer that they’re  a bit too disorganized even to be a member of the academic staff at a University or that they’re not really putting enough effort into the whole thing.

On the other hand, some people feel so uncomfortable in anything other than jeans and a T-shirt that putting on a suit would either be an unbearable ordeal for them or conflict with their self-image in some fundamental way. Neither of these are intended, so if that’s going to be the case for you, just dress as you normally do (but preferably with something reasonably clean).

This is the time of year that many undergraduate students are putting in their applications for PhD places too. I sometimes get asked (and did yesterday, in fact) whether a (male) candidate for a PhD place should wear a suit and tie for the interview. Having conducted interview days for many years at a number of different institutions, my experience is that a small proportion dress formally for PhD interviews than for job interviews. My advice to students asking about this is just to say that they should try to look reasonably presentable, but suit–and-tie are definitely not compulsory. It’s unlikely the staff interviewing you will dress formally, actually…

Anyway, my views may well differ from those of  my readers so here’s a poll.

I realise this post is written from a male perspective, as women’s clothes are a mystery to me. I hope someone can explain through the comments box what the equivalent categories are for female persons?  At least women are spared the choice of whether or not to wear a tie. Is there an equivalent quandary?

The Travellers and the Rest

Posted in Biographical with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 15, 2011 by telescoper

Yesterday’s journey to the Big Smoke wasn’t as bad as it might have been, although it was a bit frustrating at times. The train was diverted through Bath to avoid flooding near Bristol, which added about 20 minutes to the journey time. That was expected, so didn’t cause any major anxiety. After the rather scenic detour we found ourselves back in familiar territory on the Cardiff-London line, Swindon. I never thought I’d see the day when I was pleased to arrive at Swindon! However, my pleasure soon evaporated when we sat on the platform at Swindon without moving, and with no announcements or information or explanation, for another 15 minutes. Obviously 25 minutes late just wasn’t late enough for First Great Western, so they had to hold the train to enhance further their record of unpunctuality. In the end we arrived at Paddington 40 minutes late. Not good.

I still got to the meeting in time for a quick cup of tea before the afternoon’s proceedings. Straight away there was some great news. The President of the RAS, Prof. Roger Davies, announced the recipients of this year’s medals and awards and among them was Cardiff’s own Matt Griffin, who receives the Jackson-Gwilt Medal.  According to the RAS website

The Jackson-Gwilt Medal is available for award annually for the invention, improvement or development of astronomical instrumentation or techniques; for achievement in observational astronomy; or for achievement in research in the history of astronomy.

Matt Griffin’s citation reads as follows:

This year’s winner is Professor Matt Griffin of the University of Cardiff, for his work on instrumentation for astronomy in the submillimetre waveband, the region of the electromagnetic spectrum between the far-infrared and microwave wavebands.

Matt Griffin is one of a select group of scientists that helped establish a UK lead in the technical development of instrumentation for submillimetre astronomy. He has been involved in most submillimetre instrument projects over the last three decades, including the Spectral and Photometric Imaging Receiver (SPIRE) camera on Herschel. Matt led a diverse international team to bring this project to fruition, encompassing 18 institutions on three different continents.

SPIRE represents a step change in capability. With the ground-based SCUBA camera, 20 nights of observing led to the detection of 5 galaxies at submillimetre wavelengths. With SPIRE, 6000 galaxies can be detected in 8 hours.

Matt Griffin thus receives the Jackson-Gwilt Medal for in particular his outstandingly successful work on SPIRE, an instrument that is transforming submillimetre astronomy.

Heartiest congratulations to Matt and, of course, to the rest of this year’s awardees!

After the RAS meeting it was time for dinner. Owing to a muddle with bookings The Athenaeum wasn’t available for this month’s RAS Club dinner so we dined instead in the unfamiliar surroundings of The Travellers Club, which is actually next door at 106 Pall Mall.Given the trials and tribulations of travelling with First Great Western, perhaps I should apply for honorary membership?

The room we had was smaller than usual, but cosy, and the staff were very friendly. The dinner wasn’t marvellous but as always there was no shortage of interesting conversation, some of it even relating to astronomy! I got grilled by a few people about what’s going on with STFC new consolidated grants system. I told everyone who asked everything I know about it, which didn’t break any confidentiality because I don’t know anything at all.

The table service was a bit slower than at the Athenaeum so it was quite late by the time we got onto the club business. The January dinner is the “Parish” dinner at which new members and, if necessary, new officers are elected by an amusingly arcane process. A few members had to leave  to catch trains before the business was completed but I stayed to the end at about 10.00pm,  placing (perhaps unjustified) confidence in  the 10.45 train from Paddington actually existing and getting there in time to get it.

I did get to Paddington in good time, and the train hadn’t been cancelled, but it was a bit late leaving.  It then apparently developed an unspecified “mechanical fault” which made for slow running. I got into Cardiff about 25 minutes late. No diversions on the way back – presumably the floods had subsided. Perhaps there’s an excuse for the chaos ensuing from the floods, but poor maintenance is surely entirely the fault of the train company.  Not a good day for First Great Western, especially when they’ve raised their already exorbitant fares for the new year..

Oh, and one other thing that’s not at all connected with anything else. As I walked back through Sophia Gardens from the station to my house in Pontcanna about quarter to two in the morning, I saw a fox hurtling across the path in front of me then vanishing into the trees. When I lived in Beeston (a suburb of Nottingham) I saw foxes very regularly, often in my own garden. Likewise even when I lived in Bethnal Green, in the East End of London. I was  quite surprised when I moved to my house in Cardiff, right next to Pontcanna Fields and Bute Park, that no foxes were to be seen despite the apparently more promising surroundings. I’ve now lived here for two and a half years and this is the first one I’ve ever spotted. I wonder why there are so few foxes in this area?


In the Bleak Midwinter

Posted in Biographical, Cricket, Poetry, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2010 by telescoper

Apologies for my posts being a bit thin lately. It turned out to be quite a strange week, as I’ll explain in due course, but I thought I’d take the opportunity now to catch up a little bit. I apologize in advance for the rambling nature of this contribution, but if you read this blog regularly you’ll be used to that.

We’re all now back at work after the Christmas break, but this was always going to be an unusual week because it’s the last one before the mid-year examinations start. During this time there are revision lectures, but the timetable isn’t as full as in term-time proper, so  it’s more like a half-way house than a genuine return to full-time work. Although I’m always glad not to be thrown into full-time teaching or examination marking straight away after the break, I always find this hiatus slightly disorienting.

This year things are even stranger than usual because, after largely escaping the bad weather that has affected the rest of the country since before Christmas, snow and ice finally arrived with a vengeance in Cardiff on Tuesday night. It wasn’t too bad where I live, quite near the city centre, but a lot of snow fell up in rural areas, especially up in the valleys, with the result that quite a few members of staff couldn’t make it into work.

Talking of the weather gives me the excuse to include this absolutely beautiful picture of snow-bound Britain taken by NASA’s Earth Observatory satellite:

The problem wasn’t so much the snow itself, but the fact that the temperature dropped steeply soon after it fell leaving roads and pavements coated with sheets of ice. My regular refuse collection, scheduled for Wednesday, didn’t happen because the trucks couldn’t make it through the treacherous conditions, and buses and trains were severely disrupted. I think there’s been a similar picture across most of the United Kingdom.

Incidentally, the well-known Christmas carol from which I took the title of this post began life as a poem by Christina Rossetti, the first verse of which goes

In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow,
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
Long ago.

I don’t know why but, as the snow was falling heavily in the early hours of Wednesday morning, I woke up with terrible stomach pains, so bad that they kept me awake all night. I assume that this was some sort of belated reaction to yuletide over- indulgence rather than anything more serious because the discomfort eventually died away and I was left with mere exhaustion after losing a whole night’s sleep. Rather than risk walking in through the snow, I retreated to bed and slept most of Wednesday although I didn’t eat or drink anything the whole day.

Columbo kept me good company during this unpleasant episode. Usually if we’re in the house at the same time he sometimes stays by my side, but he’s at other times quite happy to potter around, or sleep on his own in  a place of his choosing.  I think he knew something wasn’t right, because he never left me alone all day which is quite unusual. Alternatively, he may just have found it warmer being next to me than elsewhere. Who knows?

My guts apparently having recovered, I went into the department on Thursday for a busy day of project interviews. These are held half-way through the third year in order to assess the students progress on their projects. In between the interviews I was trying to keep up with progress on the last day of the test match between South Africa and England taking place in Cape Town, where the weather was somewhat different to Cardiff. The match had been coming to the boil, eventually ending in a draw as England’s last pair once again staved off what looked likely to be a defeat. Shades of Monty last summer! Although it was clearly a gripping finale, I’m glad in a way that I didn’t get to follow it more closely. I always get an uneasy churning feeling in my stomach during tense passages of play, and after what had happened the day before I think that was best avoided.

Yesterday (Friday) was the date of the January meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society in London, and I decided to show my faith in the public transport system by making the round trip to London.  No-one can accuse me of having lost my spirit of adventure! Some trains had been cancelled, but those still running seemed to be on time and I thought the odds weren’t too bad.

The specialist Discussion Meeting featured a programme dedicated to the legacy of XMM, a highly successful X-ray satellite that has just had its funding axed by STFC. Later on, during the Ordinary Meeting there was an interesting talk by Alan Fitzsimmons about the impact of a small asteroid with the Earth that took place in October 2008,  and Matt Griffin presented some of the stunning new results from Herschel. RAS Discussion meetings are always held on the 2nd Friday of the month. Astronomical historian Alan Chapman reminded the Society that the corresponding meeting 80 years ago, on 10th January 1930,  was an important event in the development of the theory of the expanding universe.

Fully recovered from my tummy problems, I rounded the week off with a trip to the RAS Club for a nice dinner at the Athenaeum. Turnout was a bit lower than usual, presumably because of the inclement weather. This was the so-called Parish Meeting, at which various items of Club business are carried out, including the election of new members and Club officers. Professor Donald Lynden-Bell recently announced his retirement from the position of President and this was his last occasion in the Chair; the resulting Presidential Election was a close-run affair won by Professor Dame Carole Jordan. The election of new members is an archaic and slightly dotty process which always leaves me wondering how I managed to get elected myself. At one point during these proceedings the Club finds itself to be “without Officers”,  whereupon the most junior member (by length of membership rather than age) suddenly becomes important. On this occasion, this turned out to be me but since I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, I fluffed it. If I’d known I might have seized the opportunity to stage a coup d’etat. Other than this, it seemed to go off without any major hitches and eventually we dispersed into the freezing night to make our ways home.

As usual on Club nights I took the 10.45pm train from Paddington to Cardiff. In the prevailing meteorological circumstances I was a bit nervous about getting home, but my fears were groundless. The train was warm and, with Ipod, Guardian and Private Eye crosswords, and the last 100 pages of a novel to occupy me, the journey was remarkably pleasant. We got to Cardiff 4 minutes ahead of schedule.

Darwin and After

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 10, 2009 by telescoper

Another sign that the academic year is back into full swing is that the monthly meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society have started up again after the usual summer hiatus. Since I’ve got a very heavy week coming up, I thought I’d take the advantage of a bit of breathing space in my timetable to attend yesterday’s meeting and catch up with the gossip at the Club afterwards.

The highlight of the day’s events was the annual George Darwin Lecture which was given this year by Neil Gehrels from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on the subject Gamma Ray Bursts and the Birth of Black Holes: Discoveries by SWIFT. This is a very hot topic (of course) and the lecture did full justice to it. The RAS has two other “prize” lectures – the Gerald Whitrow Lecture and the Harold Jeffreys Lecture – which are used to invite eminent speakers from around the world. They’re not always successful as lectures because the speakers sometimes try to make them too specialised and too detailed, but this one was exceptionally clear and well delivered. I enjoyed it, as well as learning a lot; that’s the essence of a good lecture I think.

The main task for visiting speakers when it comes to the George Darwin Lecture is to give their talk without revealing the fact that they hadn’t realised that Charles Darwin had a famous astronomical son!

Then to the Athenaeum, for drinks and dinner, where the current financial crisis at STFC was in the background of a lot of the conversation. Rumours abounded but I didn’t pick up any hard information about what is likely to happen to our funding next year. I suspect that’s because even STFC doesn’t know. After a bit of wine, though, conversation moved onto other,  less depressing, things including football, cheese and the Welsh landscape.

The colleague sitting next to me (an old friend from Queen Mary days, now at Imperial College) reminded me that in January last year Joao Magueijo invited me to give the vote of thanks at his inaugural lecture (as long as I promised to try to make my speech as short and as funny as possible). It turns out his lecture was only twenty minutes long, which didn’t give as much time as I’d hoped to think of something to say so I resorted to a couple of off-colour jokes and a facetious remark about how the brevity of Imperial’s lectures explained why their students never seemed to know anything. I got a very good laugh from the packed lecture theatre, but was told off afterwards by a senior physicist from the Imperial physics department. That particular episode is something I often think about, the pomposity of some of the staff reminding me that I’m not unhappy at not getting a job there I applied for a few years ago.

Actually, I just remembered that they took pictures at the party afterwards so here’s one of me and Joao having a chuckle afterwards. Notice I had put a tie on for the occasion, but Joao’s wardrobe is strictly T-shirts only.


After Friday’s dinner (roast partridge, if you want to know) I got the last train back to Cardiff from Paddington, snoozing comfortably for a large part of the journey. On time until just outside Cardiff Central, the train then sat motionless on the track almost within sight of the platform owing to the presence of a broken down goods train in front of us. We finally got into the station 50 (FIFTY) minutes late, and I didn’t get home until well after 2am.