Archive for Jim Hough

Einstein’s Legacy

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by telescoper

Yesterday I braved the inclement weather and the perils of weekend travel on Southern Trains to visit Queen Mary College, in the East End of London, for the following event:

GR100

I used to work at  Queen Mary, but haven’t been back for a while. The college and environs have been smartened up quite a lot since I used to be there, as seems to be the case for the East End generally. I doubt if I could afford to live there now!

Owing to a little local difficulty which I won’t go into, I was running a bit late so I missed the morning session. I did, however, arrive in time to see my former colleague Bangalore Sathyaprakash from Cardiff talking about gravitational waves, Jim Hough from Glasgow talking about experimental gravity – including gravitational waves but also talking about the puzzling state of affairs over “Big G” – and Pedro Ferreira from Oxford whose talk on “Cosmology for the 21st Century” gave an enjoyable historical perspective on recent developments.

The talks were held in the Great Hall in the People’s Palace on Mile End Road, a large venue that was pretty full all afternoon. I’m not sure whether it was the District/Hammersmith & City Line or the Central Line (or both) that provided the atmospheric sound effects, especially when Jim Hough described the problems of dealing with seismic noise in gravitational experiments and a train rumbled underneath right on cue.

UPDATE: Thanks to Bryn’s comment (below) I looked at a map: the Central Line goes well to the North whereas the District and Hammersmith & City Line go directly under the main buildings adjacent to Mile End Road.

Under-QM

Anyway, the venue was even fuller for the evening session, kicked off by my former PhD supervisor, John Barrow:

Einstein's Legacy

This session was aimed at a more popular audience and was attended by more than a few A-level students. John’s talk was very nice, taking us through all the various cosmological models that have been developed based on Einstein’s theory of General Relativity.

Finally, topping the bill, was Sir Roger Penrose whose talk was engagingly lo-tech in terms of visual aids but aimed at quite a high level. His use of hand-drawn transparencies was very old-school, but a useful side-effect was that he conveyed very effectively how entropy always increases with time.

Penrose covered some really interesting material related to black holes and cosmology, especially to do with gravitational entropy, but my heart sank when he tried at the end to resurrect his discredited “Circles in the Sky” idea. I’m not sure how much the A-level students took from his talk, but I found it very entertaining.

The conference carries on today, but I couldn’t attend the Sunday session owing to pressure of work. Which I should be doing now!

P.S. I’ll say it before anyone else does: yes, all the speakers I heard were male, as indeed were the two I missed in the morning. I gather there was one cancellation  of a female speaker (Alessandra Buonanno), for whom Sathya stood in.  But still.

 

A Time for Honours

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on June 15, 2013 by telescoper

The word “honour” provides a (tenuous) link between yesterday’s post and this one. After our recent preoccupation with the classification of honours for graduating students (i.e. first class, second class, and so on), today’s news included the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for 2013, which you can download in full here. To make up for the lack of recycling going on in Brighton these days because of the strike that started yesterday, I thought I’d recycle my thoughts from previous years.

The honours system must appear extremely curious to people from outside the United Kingdom. It certainly seems so to me. On the one hand, I am glad that the government has a mechanism for recognising the exceptional contributions made to society by certain individuals. Musicians, writers, sportsmen, entertainers and the like generally receive handsome financial rewards, of course, but that’s no reason to begrudge a medal or two in recognition of the special place they occupy in our cultural life.  It’s  good to see scientists recognized too, although they tend not to get noticed so much by the press.

The name that stood out for me in this year’s list is Professor Jim Hough, who gets an OBE. Jim is Professor of Experimental Physics at the University of Glasgow, and his speciality is in the detection of gravitational waves.  Gravitational waves haven’t actually been detected yet, of course, but the experimental techniques designed to find them have increased their sensitivity by many orders of magnitude in recent years, Jim having played a large part in those improvements. I imagine he will be absolutely thrilled in February 2016, when gravitational waves are finally detected. Jim is also Chief Executive of the Scottish University Physics Alliance, which does so much to nurture Physics and Astronomy North of the Border.

Although I’m of course more than happy to see recognition given to such people, as I did  a couple of years ago I can’t resist stating my objections to the honours system again. One is that the list of recipients  of certain categories of award is overwhelmingly dominated by career civil servants, for whom an “honour”  goes automatically with a given rank. If an honour is considered an entitlement in this way then it is no honour at all, and in fact devalues those awards that are  given on merit to people outside the Civil Service. Civil servants get paid for doing their job, so they should have no more expectation of an additional reward than anyone else. There’s much more honour in a  student who earns a First Class degree than for a career civil servant who gets a knighthood.

Honours have relatively little monetary value on their own, of course so this is not question of financial corruption. An honour does, however, confer status and prestige on the recipient so what we have is a much more subtle form of sleaze. One wonders how many names listed in the current roll of honours are there because of political donations, for example.

I wouldn’t accept an honour myself, but that’s easy to say because I’m sure I’ll never be nominated for one; hopefully this post will dissuade anyone from even thinking of nominating me for a gong. However, I imagine that even people like me who are against the whole system are probably still tempted to accept such awards when offered, as they generate good publicity for one’s field, institution and colleagues.It’s a very personal decision and I have no criticism to make of people who think differently from me about whether to accept an honour.