Archive for Cambridge

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).

Smalltown Boy

Posted in Biographical, Music with tags , , , , on September 13, 2010 by telescoper

This time of year always fills me with nostalgia. All the talk of new students arriving, taking their first steps on a new life away from home, reminds me of the time many years ago when got on the train in Newcastle and made the long journey to Cambridge with most of my belongings in suitcases. No-one in my family had ever gone to university before I went to Cambridge – and  none have gone since, if truth be told!

I’d only been to Cambridge once before (for the interview). When I got there, after several hours’ travel, and sat down in the room in Magdalene College that had been allocated to me, I felt someone (possibly me) had made a terrible mistake and there was no way I would ever feel like I belonged there.

In fact, I’m now feeling second-order nostalgia, because one of my very first blog posts, almost two years ago, was about that trip. I remember sitting in the garden writing it just as I remember sitting in my new room in Cambridge all those years ago thinking “What on Earth am I doing here?”.

Having set  off on a sentimental journey, I might as well complete it with this  track from Bronski Beat which – for reasons which I hope are obvious – completes the sense of wistfulness. This was released in 1984, a  couple of years after I left home, but I’ve never been one to let mere chronology get in the way of self-indulgence.

Life, the Universe, and Coloured Pencils

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 18, 2010 by telescoper

Yesterday’s post got me thinking about what it is that makes scientists decide on their own speciality. It’s got to have something to do with the intersection between interest and aptitude, in that I think we learn gradually through our time at School that there are some things we can do well and others that we can’t but the things we can do well aren’t always things we find sufficiently interesting to make a career doing.

I suspect luck also plays a big part, in that the choices one gets to make must be taken from the options at a very particular time. I ended up doing research in cosmology after my first degree, but it wasn’t any kind of a grand plan that got me to Sussex in 1985 to do that but it just seemed the best choice to me out of all the half-a-dozen other places I visited.

Before I meander off the point again I’ll just pass on something that one of my teachers at school told me, and which probably had a big effect on an impressionable teenager. It was my chemistry teacher, Geoff (“Doc”) Swinden, that probably had more influence than anyone in making me decide to become a physicist.

By the way he was called “Doc” because he had a PhD (or perhaps a DPhil, as I think  he got his doctorate, in organic chemistry, from Oxford University). I didn’t go into Organic Chemistry, of course, but that was mainly because I hated the practical aspects of chemistry and pose a considerable threat to the safety of others when placed in any kind of laboratory environment.

Anyway, I remember very well a comment of Doc Swinden’s to the effect that anyone wanting to be called a proper scientist should avoid any subject that required the use of coloured pencils. That ruled out biology, geology and a host of others and left me firmly in the domain of physical science. I ended up going to Cambridge to do a degree in Natural Sciences, which allowed me to do chemistry and physics for a year and then decide which to continue. Obviously I went the way of physics.

I don’t regret going into physics at all, but I don’t think this bit of advice was all good. When I went to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences, I had to pick an extra subject to do in the first year to do alongside my main choices, chemistry, physics and mathematics. Among the options were geology, biology of organisms, and biology of cells but, mindful of the possibility that all of these might require the dreaded coloured pencil, I went for a course called Crystalline Materials. It’s true that I didn’t have to colour anything in, but it was the most mind-numbingly awful course I’ve ever taken. I very nearly failed it at the end of the first year, in fact, but still managed to get  a First-class mark overall.

Going back to yesterday’s post, I realise that one of the reasons I’m less gung ho for Mars exploration than some of my colleagues might be that it’s a bit too much like geology or even biology. It seems the ghost of the coloured pencil is still haunting me.