Archive for Cambridge

Charles Kingsley on the Irish

Posted in Biographical, History, Politics with tags , , , , on September 4, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been aware since my schooldays that there has been (and still is) a significant tendency among the English (especially their governing classes) to regard the Irish as lawless barbarians, but this quote which I found in a book I’ve been reading really took my breath away. It’s from a letter written by Charles Kingsley to his wife in 1861, while he was travelling through an Ireland still reeling from the devastation of the Great Famine:

But I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country. I don’t believe they are our fault, I believe that there are not only more of them than of old, but that they are happier, better, more comfortably fed and lodged under our rule than they ever were. But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.

This passage is revolting in so many ways that I don’t think it needs any further comment, but it is worth mentioning that Charles Kingsley was, by the standards of his time, regarded as something of a progressive. As well as being a Church of England priest, Professor of History and a novelist (I read The Water-Babieswhen I was a child), he was also a social reformer involved in such initiatives as the working men’s college and labour cooperatives. Clearly his concern for the poor and oppressed didn’t extend much beyond his own people.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should also mention that Charles Kingsley did his undergraduate studies at Magdalene College, Cambridge, as did I (thought not at the same time).

Project Work

Posted in Biographical, Education, mathematics with tags , , , , , on April 23, 2018 by telescoper

I’m progressively clearing out stuff from my office prior to the big move to Ireland. This lunchtime I opened one old box file and found my undergraduate project. This was quite an unusual thing at the time as I did Theoretical Physics in Part II (my final year) of Natural Sciences at Cambridge, which normally meant no project but an extra examination paper called Paper 5. As a member of a small minority of Theoretical Physics students who wanted to do theory projects, I was allowed to submit this in place of half of Paper 5…

The problem was to write a computer program that could solve the equations describing the action of a laser, starting with the case of a single-mode laser as shown in the diagram below that I constructed using a sophisticated computer graphics package:

The above system is described by a set of six simultaneous first-order ordinary differential equations, which are of relatively simple form to look at but not so easy to solve numerically because the equations are stiff (i.e. they involve exponential decays or growths with very different time constants). I got around this by using a technique called Gear’s method. There wasn’t an internet in those days so I had to find out about the numerical approach by trawling through books in the library.

The code I wrote – in Fortran 77 – was run on a mainframe, and the terminal had no graphics capability so I had to check the results as a list of numbers before sending the results to a printer and wait for the output to be delivered some time later. Anyway, I got the code to work and ended up with a good mark that helped me get a place to do a PhD.

The sobering thought, though, is that I reckon a decent undergraduate physics student nowadays could probably do all the work I did for my project in a few hours using Python….

The Parnell Connection

Posted in Beards, Biographical, History with tags , , , , on April 19, 2018 by telescoper

Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891)

Taking a short breather and a cup of coffee in between this morning’s lecture and a forthcoming computer lab session I thought I’d do a quick post following on from a comment on yesterday’s post about an O-level History paper.

I was an undergraduate student at Magdalene College, Cambridge, which just happens to be where 19th century Irish nationalist politician Charles Stewart Parnell (above) studied, although I hasten to add that we weren’t contemporaries. There is an annual Parnell Lecture at Magdalene in his honour; an annual Coles lecture is yet to be established. Parnell is widely remembered here in Ireland too, not least in place names: there is , for example, a handsome Georgian square in Dublin named after him.

Parnell was one of the most charismatic, capable and influential Parliamentarians of his era, and led the Irish Parliamentary Party at the forefront of moves for Home Rule for Ireland. He also had a splendid beard. His career was cut short by scandal in the form of an adulterous relationship with Kitty (Katherine) O’Shea, whom her husband divorced in 1889 naming Parnell in the case, and whom he married after the divorce. (Kitty, that is, not her husband.) They were not to enjoy life together for long, however, as Parnell died in 1891 of pneumonia in the arms of his wife in 1891 at their home in Brighton (Hove, actually).


Cardiff, City of Cycling?

Posted in Bute Park, Cardiff with tags , , , , , , , on February 22, 2017 by telescoper

Two recent news items about Cardiff caught my attention so I thought I’d do a quick post. The first piece was about the terrible state of traffic congestion in the city. This doesn’t affect me directly as I normally work to work and back, but it has definitely got much worse in the last few years. The roads are regularly gridlocked, a situation made worse by the interminable and apparently pointless roadworks going on everywhere as well as absurdly slow and dysfunctional traffic lights. There’s a common view around these parts that this is being allowed to happen – or even engineered – so that Cardiff City Council can justify the introduction of congestion charging. This would be an unpopular move among motorists, but I think a congestion charge would not be a bad idea at all, as what the city really needs is to reduce the number of motor vehicles on its streets, to deal with the growing problem of pollution and long journey times.

One day, about six years ago,  I was almost run over three different times by three different vehicles. The first was near the car park in Sophia Gardens, where there are signs and road marking clearly indicating that there is a speed limit of 5 mph but where the normal speed of cars is probably more like 35; the guy who nearly killed me was doing about 60.

Next, in Bute Park, a heavy lorry belonging to the Council, engaged in some sort of “tree-management” business, thundered along the footpath past me. These paths used to be marked 5mph too, but the Council removed all the signs when it decided to build a huge road into the Park and encourage more vehicles to drive around inside. The lorry wasn’t going as fast as the Boy Racer of Sophia Gardens, but the size of the truck made it just as scary.

Finally, using a green light at the pedestrian crossing at Park Place I was narrowly missed by another car who had clearly jumped a red light to get onto the dual carriageway (Dumfries Place) leading to Newport Road.

I have to say things like this aren’t at all unusual, but that is the only time I’ve had three close encounters in one day! Although most car drivers behave responsibly, there seems to be a strong concentration of idiots in Cardiff whose antics are exacerbated by the hare-brained Highways Department of the local council. There are many things to enjoy about living in Cardiff, and the quality of life here is very good for a wide range of reasons, but of all the cities I’ve lived in it is by a long way the least friendly to pedestrians and cyclists.

Which brings me to the second news item, which is about Cardiff City Council’s ambitious new Cycling Strategy, which aims to double the number of trips made using cyclists over the next ten years. That still wouldn’t reach the level of Cambridge, where 30% of all journeys in the city are done by bicycle.

Cardiff has a long way to go to match Cambridge and further still to be like Copenhagen, one of the loveliest and most livable cities I’ve ever experienced, partly because of its traffic policies.

In the interest of balance I should also point out that I was once actually hit on a pedestrian crossing in Cardiff by a bicycle steered by a maniac who went through a red light. In this case, however, I did manage to push him off his bike as he tried to get away, so he ended up more seriously hurt than I was. I was hoping that a friendly car would run over his bike, which was lying in the road, but sadly that didn’t happen.

I hope in their desire to increase the number of cyclists, the town planners don’t forget those of us who travel on foot!

One Fine Conformal Transformation

Posted in Brighton, Cute Problems with tags , , , , , on March 25, 2015 by telescoper

It’s been a while since I posted a cute physics problem, so try this one for size. It is taken from a book of examples I was given in 1984 to illustrate a course on Physical Applications of Complex Variables I took during the a 4-week course I took in Long Vacation immediately prior to my third year as an undergraduate at Cambridge.  Students intending to specialise in Theoretical Physics in Part II of the Natural Sciences Tripos (as I was) had to do this course, which lasted about 10 days and was followed by a pretty tough test. Those who failed the test had to switch to Experimental Physics, and spend the rest of the summer programme doing laboratory work, while those who passed it carried on with further theoretical courses for the rest of the Long Vacation programme. I managed to get through, to find that what followed wasn’t anywhere near as tough as the first bit. I inferred that Physical Applications of Complex Variables was primarily there in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s always been an issue with Theoretical Physics courses that they attract two sorts of student: one that likes mathematical work and really wants to do theory, and another that hates experimental physics slightly more than he/she hates everything else. This course, and especially the test after it, was intended to minimize the number of the second type getting into Part II Theoretical Physics.

Another piece of information that readers might find interesting is that the lecturer for Physical Applications of Complex Variables was a young Mark Birkinshaw, now William P. Coldrick Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Bristol.

As it happens, this term I have been teaching a module on Theoretical Physics to second-year undergraduates at the University of Sussex. This covers many of the topics I studied at Cambridge in the second year, including the calculus of variations, relativistic electrodynamics, Green’s functions and, of course, complex functions. In fact I’ve used some of the notes I took as an undergraduate, and have kept all these years, to prepare material for my own lectures. I am pretty adamant therefore that the academic level at which we’re teaching this material now is no lower than it was thirty years ago.

Anyway, here’s a typically eccentric problem from the workbook, from a set of problems chosen to illustrate applications of conformal transformations (which I’ve just finished teaching this term). See how you get on with it. The first correct answer submitted through the comments box gets a round of applaud.

conformal transformation


Freshers’ Week Reminiscences

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , on September 13, 2014 by telescoper

So here I am again, on campus, on a Saturday, this time to attend some receptions for new students (“Freshers”) who have just arrived at the University of Sussex to start their courses. I always enjoy meeting the new intake at this time of year; we sometimes call them “The Autumn Collection”, although it’s only mid-September and definitely not autumn yet. In fact it’s very warm and sunny and summery on Falmer campus today. The  downside of these annual events is that the students look much younger every year, so every one makes me feel a lot older than the one before!

Looking through my back catalogue of blog posts I realize that this blog is six years old next week. One of my first blog posts was about  memories of my own first day at University and it seems appropriate to repeat some of it here. I notice actually that virtually all Freshers’ weeks I’ve written about over the past six years have been accompanied by fine weather. I find this kind of weather a bit spooky because it always takes me back to the time when I left home to go to University, as thousands of fledgling students are about to do this year in their turn. I did it 32 years ago, getting on a train at Newcastle Central station with my bags of books and clothes. I said goodbye to my parents there. There was never any question of them taking me in the car all the way to Cambridge. It wasn’t practical and I wouldn’t have wanted them to do it anyway. After changing from the Inter City at Peterborough onto a local train, we trundled through the flatness of East Anglia until it reached Cambridge. The weather, at least in my memory, was exactly like today.

I don’t remember much about the actual journey, but I must have felt a mixture of fear and excitement. Nobody in my family had ever been to University before, let alone to Cambridge. Come to think of it, nobody from my family has done so since either. I was a bit worried about whether the course I would take in Natural Sciences would turn out to be difficult, but I think my main concern was how I would fit in generally.

I had been working between leaving school and starting my undergraduate course, so I had some money in the bank and I was also to receive a full grant. I wasn’t really worried about cash. But I hadn’t come from a posh family and didn’t really know the form. I didn’t have much experience of life outside the North East either. I’d been to London only once before going to Cambridge, and had never been abroad.

I didn’t have any posh clothes, a deficiency I thought would mark me as an outsider. I had always been grateful for having to wear a school uniform (which was bought with vouchers from the Council) because it meant that I dressed the same as the other kids at School, most of whom came from much wealthier families. But this turned out not to matter at all. Regardless of their family background, students were generally a mixture of shabby and fashionable, like they are today. Physics students in particular didn’t even bother with the fashionable bit. Although I didn’t have a proper dinner jacket for the Matriculation Dinner, held for all the new undergraduates, nobody said anything about my dark suit which I was told would be acceptable as long as it was a “lounge suit” (whatever that is).

Taking a taxi from the station, I finally arrived at Magdalene College. I waited outside, a bundle of nerves, for some time before entering the Porter’s Lodge and starting my life as a student. My name was found and ticked off and a key issued for my room in the Lutyens building. It turned out to be a large room, with a kind of screen that could be pulled across to divide the room into two, although I never actually used this contraption. There was a single bed and a kind of cupboard containing a sink and a mirror in the bit that could be hidden by the screen. The rest of the room contained a sofa, a table, a desk, and various chairs, all of them quite old but solidly made. Outside my  room, on the landing, was the gyp room, a kind of small kitchen, where I was to make countless cups of tea over the following months, although I never actually cooked anything there.

I struggled in with my bags and sat on the bed. It wasn’t at all like I had imagined. I realized that no amount of imagining would ever really have prepared me for what was going to happen at University.

I  stared at my luggage. I suddenly felt like I had landed on a strange island where I didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t remember why I had gone there or what I was supposed to be doing. I’ve had that feeling ever since, but after 32 years I think I’m used to it.

Alma Mater

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , on March 22, 2013 by telescoper

During my short visit to Cambridge on Wednesday I happened to pass through Magdalene College (on my way to a couple of pints in The Pickerel). I couldn’t resist taking a pic of the Lutyens Building, where I lived in the first year (1982/3). My room was second from the far end, on the first floor. I wonder who’s in there now?

Planck, Pointillism and the Axle of Elvis

Posted in Art, Biographical, Cosmic Anomalies, Open Access, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 21, 2013 by telescoper

The reason I was out of the office yesterday was that I was in Cambridge, doing a PhD oral in the Cavendish Laboratory so the first thing to say is congratulations Dr Johnston! It was one of those viva voce examinations that turned out to be less of an examination than an interesting chat about physics. In fact the internal examiner, Prof. Steve Gull, seemed to spend more time asking me questions rather than the candidate!

Afterwards I met up with Anthony Lasenby, the candidate’s supervisor. Not surprisingly the main topic of our brief discussion was today’s impending announcement of results from Planck. Anthony is one of the folks who have been involved with Planck for about twenty years, since it began as a twinkle in the eye of COBRAS/SAMBA. I was looking forward to getting in bright and early this morning to watch the live streaming of the Planck press conference from Paris.

Unfortunately however, I could feel a bit of a lurgy coming on as I travelled to Cambridge yesterday. It got decidedly worse on the way home – it must have been the Cambridge air – and I even ended up passing out on the train from Victoria to Brighton. Fortunately, Brighton was the terminus so someone woke me up when we got there and I got home, coughing and spluttering. I suspect many cosmologists didn’t sleep well last night because of excitement about the Planck results, but in my case it was something else that kept me awake. Anyway, I didn’t make it in this morning so had to follow the announcements via Twitter. Fortunately there’s a lot of press coverage too; see the ESA site and a nice piece by the BBC’s redoubtable Jonathan Amos.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s Planck’s map of the cosmic microwave background:


It’s rather beautiful, in a pointillist kind of way, I think…

It will take me a while in my weakened state to complete a detailed study of the results – and I’m sure to return to them many times in the future, but I will make a couple of points now.

The first is that the papers and data products are all immediately available online. The papers will all appear on the arXiv. Open Access sceptics please take note!

The second is that the most interesting result (as far as I’m concerned) is that at least some of the cosmic anomalies I’ve blogged about in the past, such as the Axle of Elvis Axis of Evil and the famous colder-than-it-should-be cold spot, are still present in the Planck data:


The other results excite me less because, at a quick reading, they all seem to be consistent with the standard cosmological model. Of course, the north-south asymmetry is a small effect on could turn out to be a foreground (e.g. zodiacal emission) or an artefact of the scanning strategy. But if it isn’t a systematic it could be very important. I suspect there’ll be a rush of papers about this before long!

I’m sure to p0st much more about the Planck results in due course, but I think I’ll leave it there for now. Please feel free to post comments and reactions through the box below.

Generational Guilt

Posted in Biographical, Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on November 23, 2012 by telescoper

Exhausted near the end of an exceptionally busy week, I found myself taking a short break after a two-hour lecturing session when a student knocked at my door to ask for some advice about applying for PhDs. I was happy to oblige, of course, but after he’d gone it struck me how much tougher things are for today’s generation, compared with how easy it was for me.

I got a scholarship to the local grammar school (The Royal Grammar School in Newcastle upon Tyne) by passing the 11+ examination back in 1974. I got a good education that most pupils at the School had to pay for (or at least their parents did). I got good 0 and A levels, and then passed the post A-level examination to get me into Cambridge. Through contacts at school I got a job for nine months working for a British Gas research station in Cramlington, during which time I earned a nice wage. I went to Cambridge with a healthy bank balance on top of which I received a full maintenance grant. There were no tuition fees then either. When I graduated I was solvent and debt-free.

When I applied for PhDs I did so with no real idea about what research I might do. I wasn’t an outstanding undergraduate student and my personal statement was vagueness personified, but I got a place nonetheless. The stipend was modest, but one could live on it. I never had money worries as a PhD. Nor have I since. It all seems so simple, looking back.

Today’s students have no such luck. The Direct Grant system that paid my school fees was discontinued shortly after I benefited from it. I’m sure I wouldn’t have got into University had I gone to the local comprehensive. Then maintenance grants were discontinued and fees introduced (then rapidly increased from £1000 to first £3000 and then £9000). Graduates now are usually burdened with huge debts. Moreover, when students apply for postgraduate study are nowadays often expected to not only to know precisely what they’re going to do but also be outstandingly good

The pressure we put on graduates now is out of all proportion to what I experienced. The reason? There are more of them overall, so there are more with first-class degrees chasing PhD funding. Many students who are much better than I was at the same stage of my career won’t make it just because of the arithmetic. Many will be discouraged by the finances too. It’s tragic that talented young people should be denied the chance to fulfil their ambitions by not having wealthy parents.

I’m often impressed (and even inspired) by those students who show a determination to pursue academic ambitions despite all the difficulties, but at the same time I feel guilty that it was so much easier in my day. Mine is the generation that decided to transfer the cost of higher education onto students and their families. Mine is also the generation that wrecked the economy by living beyond our means for too long.

To all those young people whose ambitions are thwarted by circumstances beyond their control all I can say is I’m sorry we oldies stole your future.

Research Opportunities in the Philosophy of Cosmology

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2012 by telescoper

I got an email this morning telling me about the following interesting opportunities for research fellowships. They are in quite an unusual area – the philosophy of cosmology – and one I’m quite interested in myself so I thought it might ahieve wider circulation if I posted the advertisement on here.


Applications are invited for two postdoctoral fellowships in the area of philosophy of cosmology, one to be held at Cambridge University and one to be held at Oxford University, starting 1 Jan 2013 to run until 31 Aug 2014. The two positions have similar job-descriptions and the deadline for applications is the same: 18 April 2012.

For more details, see here, for the Cambridge fellowship and  here for the Oxford fellowship.

Applicants are encouraged to apply for both positions. The Oxford group is led by Joe Silk, Simon Saunders and David Wallace, and that at Cambridge by John Barrow and Jeremy Butterfield.

These appointments are part of the initiative ‘establishing the philosophy of cosmology’, involving a consortium of universities in the UK and USA, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. Its aim is to identify, define and explore new foundational questions in cosmology. Key questions already identified concern:

  • The issue of measure, including potential uses of anthropic reasoning
  • Space-time structure, both at very large and very small scales
  • The cosmological constant problem
  • Entropy, time and complexity, in understanding the various arrows of time
  • Symmetries and invariants, and the nature of the description of the universe as a whole

Applicants with philosophical interests in cosmology outside these areas will also be considered.

For more background on the initiative, see here and the project website (still under construction).