Archive for Imperial College

One Day in London

Posted in Biographical, Books, Talks and Reviews with tags , , on June 15, 2017 by telescoper

As it happens, I was in London yesterday to give an Astrophysics seminar at South Kensington Technical Imperial College. In due course I’ll post the slides as I normally do on such occasions.

It was an enjoyable day, with a train journey from Cardiff nice lunch followed by a question-and-answer session with students followed by the talk followed by a cup of tea, followed by a train ride home – all (for a change) running exactly to schedule. It was also extremely hot which meant the walk between Paddington and Imperial (across Hyde Park) left me rather sweaty. Better than getting rained on I suppose.

My hosts gave me an espresso cup, with an interesting motto on the back.


Usually when I go to Imperial or thereabouts I have a minor quandary about whether to walk or take the tube, with such factors as time, weight of baggage and weather taken into consideration before making a decision. This time, however, there was no decision to make because there were problems on the Underground in the area because of the terrible fire at Grenfell Towers, which has claimed the lives of at least 17 people (and possibly many more). The fire itself was near Latimer Road station, which is not on the line I would have taken, but there were apparently fears that the building might collapse near the line (which is overground at that point) so trains were suspended all the way from Hammersmith to Edgware Road, which disrupted the running of the Circle Line.

The venue for my talk was two or three miles away from Grenfell Towers, but in mid-afternoon you could still see smoke in the distance. It was a grim sight. I think I’ll remember yesterday afternoon very well, not because I gave a seminar, but because of the terrible events that happened earlier the same day.

There are many questions that urgently require answers. How did the fire start? Why did it spread so rapidly? Did the smoke alarms work (and if not why not)? Did the cladding on the outside of the building play a role? Did the fact that there was only a single stairwell – astonishing to my mind for a 20-storey residential building – cost lives?

I hope we’ll find the answers to these questions through a proper public inquiry. In the meantime all I can do is express my deepest condolences to those bereaved by this disaster, and wish a speedy recovery for those injured. They will need to understand what happened, urgently.

On the train home yesterday I looked at Twitter and saw this picture, of grim-faced and exhausted firefighters taking a break. I found it almost unbearably moving. We take these people for granted so much of the time, but they’re heroes – every single one of them:

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From Darkness to Green

Posted in History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 7, 2014 by telescoper

On Wednesday this week I spent a very enjoyable few hours in London attending the Inaugural Lecture of Professor Alan Heavens at South Kensington Technical College Imperial College, London. It was a very good lecture indeed, not only for its scientific content but also for  the plentiful touches of droll humour in which Alan specialises. It was also followed by a nice drinks reception and buffet. The talk was entitled Cosmology in the Dark, so naturally I had to mention it on this blog!

At the end of the lecture, the vote of thanks was delivered in typically effervescent style by the ebullient Prof. Malcolm Longair who actually supervised Alan’s undergraduate project at the Cavendish laboratory way back in 1980, if I recall the date correctly. In his speech, Malcolm referred to the following quote from History of the Theories of the Aether and Electricity (Whittaker, 1951) which he was kind enough to send me when I asked by email:

The century which elapsed between the death of Newton and the scientific activity of Green was the darkest in the history of (Cambridge) University. It is true that (Henry) Cavendish and (Thomas) Young were educated at Cambridge; but they, after taking their undergraduate courses, removed to London. In the entire period the only natural philosopher of distinction was (John) Michell; and for some reason which at this distance of time it is difficult to understand fully, Michell’s researches seem to have attracted little or no attention among his collegiate contemporaries and successors, who silently acquiesced when his discoveries were attributed to others, and allowed his name to perish entirely from the Cambridge tradition.

I wasn’t aware of this analysis previously, but it re-iterates something I have posted about before. It stresses the enormous historical importance of British mathematician and physicist George Green, who lived from 1793 until 1841, and who left a substantial legacy for modern theoretical physicists, in Green’s theorems and Green’s functions; he is also credited as being the first person to use the word “potential” in electrostatics.

Green was the son of a Nottingham miller who, amazingly, taught himself mathematics and did most of his best work, especially his remarkable Essay on the Application of mathematical Analysis to the theories of Electricity and Magnetism (1828) before starting his studies as an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge which he did at the age of 30. Lacking independent finance, Green could not go to University until his father died, whereupon he leased out the mill he inherited to pay for his studies.

Extremely unusually for English mathematicians of his time, Green taught himself from books that were published in France. This gave him a huge advantage over his national contemporaries in that he learned the form of differential calculus that originated with Leibniz, which was far more elegant than that devised by Isaac Newton (which was called the method of fluxions). Whittaker remarks upon this:

Green undoubtedly received his own early inspiration from . . . (the great French analysts), chiefly from Poisson; but in clearness of physical insight and conciseness of exposition he far excelled his masters; and the slight volume of his collected papers has to this day a charm which is wanting in their voluminous writings.

Great scientist though he was, Newton’s influence on the development of physics in Britain was not entirely positive, as the above quote makes clear. Newton was held in such awe, especially in Cambridge, that his inferior mathematical approach was deemed to be the “right” way to do calculus and generations of scholars were forced to use it. This held back British science until the use of fluxions was phased out. Green himself was forced to learn fluxions when he went as an undergraduate to Cambridge despite having already learned the better method.

Unfortunately, Green’s great pre-Cambridge work on mathematical physics didn’t reach wide circulation in the United Kingdom until after his death. William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin, found a copy of Green’s Essay in 1845 and promoted it widely as a work of fundamental importance. This contributed to the eventual emergence of British theoretical physics from the shadow cast by Isaac Newton which reached one of its heights just a few years later with the publication a fully unified theory of electricity and magnetism by James Clerk Maxwell.

But as to the possible reason for the lack of recognition for John Michell who was clearly an important figure in his own right (he was the person who first developed the concept of a black hole, for example) you’ll have to read Malcolm Longair’s forthcoming book on the History of the Cavendish Laboratory!

Our New Chief Scientific Advisor …

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on April 14, 2010 by telescoper

I just came across an interesting bit of news that I thought I’d share with those of you who haven’t heard it already. It came out some time ago, in fact, but I  missed it at the time.

Over a year ago I went to a meeting about Science Policy in Wales. One of the issues raised at that meeting was that the Welsh Assembly Government hadn’t yet managed to appoint a Chief Scientific Advisor, despite the results of a review in carried out in 2008 by Sir Christopher Pollock that argued strongly that this should be done. In June 2009, the (new) First Minister Carwyn Jones finally announced that he would proceed with an appointment to this new position but it’s still taken quite a while to get someone to fill the post.

Still, better late than never, and we now know who it is who will advise the WAG on matters scientific. It turns out that the first ever Chief Scientific Advisor for Wales will be John Harries (left), who is originally from Aberavon, and is the University of London Professor of Earth Observation at the Blackett Laboratory of Imperial College London, who has previously been a senior adviser to the UK Government in several roles. Professor Harries will take up his role on May 1, but I think he’ll carry on working at Imperial about 20% of his time.

The Chief Scientific Adviser’s role will be to provide scientific advice to the First Minister and the Welsh Assembly Government, to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics and the role of science within the wider knowledge economy.

First Minister Carwyn Jones said:

The appointment of Professor Harries as our first Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales will ensure that we build on an impressive track record of achievement, and develop a more effective promotion of science and technology within the wider knowledge economy arena.

This will prove invaluable as we continue to encourage the knowledge, skills and enterprise to strengthen businesses in Wales ahead of the global economic upturn.

According to Professor Harries,

It is a huge honour to be asked to become the first Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales and I look forward with great enthusiasm to carrying out this new role on behalf of the government and people of Wales.

Wales is a small country, but is capable of the intelligent application of new science and engineering as a basis for greater commercial success in industry. The role includes acting as Head of Profession, providing a focus for good practice and the enhancement and encouragement of scientists and engineers in Wales. This is a job that encompasses two (along with my family and rugby) of my great passions – Science and Wales. I will give it my very best effort.

The appointment of a physicist as Chief Scientific Advisor for Wales could be very interesting with regard to the future development of the subject within the Principality. In particular, the recent devastating cuts in the UK’s  astronomy funding have led to some of our astronomers wondering whether they should work on space instruments that look down rather than up, and a move into Earth observation might now be even more timely.

In more general terms, it’s good to see the Welsh Assembly recognizing the importance of science, although whether they see its importance  being connected very narrowly with commerce remains to be seen. Anyway, I think it could turn out to be an excellent move, and I want to take this opportunity to wish Professor Harries the best of luck  in his new job!

Talked Out

Posted in Books, Talks and Reviews, Cosmic Anomalies with tags , , , on November 20, 2009 by telescoper

My trip to Bath yesterday turned out to be very enjoyable and entirely free of aqueous complications. The train ran on time from Cardiff to Bath Spa, although it was hideously overcrowded. About an hour later I was met at the station by Gary Mathlin and taken to the University campus  in his car. I didn’t get to see much of the city because it was already dark, but parts of it are very beautiful in a very Jane-Austen type of way. The University of Bath campus is a very different kettle of fish, a 1960s modernist construction in which I would have got completely lost had I not had a guide. Quite smart though. Better than most of its ilk.

The talk itself was in quite a large and swish lecture theatre. I’m not sure how many turned up but it might have been close to a hundred or so. Very mixed too, with quite a few students and some much older types.

I thought it went down quite well, but you’ll really have to ask the audience about that! I answered a few questions at the end and then there was  a very generous vote of thanks and I was given a gift of a very interesting book published by Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. Thereafter I was whisked off to dinner, which I hadn’t realised was going to happen. I had the chance to chat to various people, including students and members  of the William Herschel Society, all of whom were very friendly and convivial after a few glasses of wine. Fortunately, Gary Mathlin lives in Cardiff so he gave me a lift home afterwards so I didn’t get back too late.

This morning I had to head straight to London without going into work in order to get to Imperial College to give a lunchtime seminar at the Theoretical Physics group, which is based in the Huxley building. I think it is named after T.H. rather than Aldous, because I wasn’t offered any Mescalin. Of course seminars like this have a much smaller audience and are much more technical than public lectures, but I still found myself having flashbacks to the previous evening’s lecture. I talked about various bits and pieces arising from work I’ve been doing with various people about the cosmic anomalies I’ve blogged about from time to time.

After this we went to a local pizzeria for a late lunch (and a couple of glasses of wine). I would have liked to stay longer to chat with the folks there, but I wanted to get back to Cardiff at a reasonable hour so I left in time for the 4.15 train.

Walking back home from Cardiff station along the side of the River Taff I was struck by its rather sinister appearance. Still high after the recent rains, and lit only by the lights of the city, it glistened like thick black oil as it flowed very quickly down towards the Bay.  I felt more than a hint of menace in the sheer volume of water streaming past in the darkness.

So far we’ve escaped the worst of the season’s bad weather. The fells of Cumbria, in the far north-west of England, have had 14 inches of rain in 2 days, which is a record. If that happened in South Wales I’m not sure even Cardiff’s formidable flood defences would cope! The  forecast for this weekend is terrible so I don’t think I’ll be doing anything very much outdoors. That suits me, in fact, as all this travelling about has left me well and truly knackered. Time for an early night, I think!

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.

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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.